Car wars: Apple and Google vie for driver's seat in connected-car market

Google has announced the formation of the Open Automotive Alliance, a coalition of automakers working to adapt the Android OS for in-car connectivity. If the name sounds familiar, it's because it's a variation of the Open Handset Alliance, which Google formed in 2007 alongside a more than a dozen other tech companies to develop open standards for mobile devices, which led to Android's eventual dominance of the mobile OS market.

The similarities go further than that. The Open Handset Alliance was established in early November 2007, about 11 months after Steve Jobs famously introduced the first iPhone at the Macworld Convention in January 2007. Similarly, the announcement of the Open Automotive Alliance comes roughly eight months after Apple announced that it was working with a handful of auto manufacturers on an initiative currently known as "iOS In The Car." It seems once again Android is making its move, at least officially, months after Apple, and has set the stage for another showdown in a massive, untapped market.

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In the Open Automotive Alliance, Android counts Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai and NVIDIA as allies. Apple, meanwhile, claims about 20 car manufacturers have shown interest in the iOS In The Car program, including all three of the manufacturers that make up the Open Automotive Alliance.

Having gotten the early start, Apple's initiative already has some momentum. Select Honda and Acura models already offer Siri Eyes Free integration, which uses the cars' voice-command capabilities to access iPhone apps. Honda has also released two iOS apps aimed at bridging the gap between the smartphone and its cars' touchscreen consoles.

With the sudden competition from Google, 2014 is shaping up to be the year the two reigning mobile titans prepare to compete in the automobile market. However, although it may seem like a completely open market, research suggests it could just become an extension of the smartphone market.

Sheila Brennan, program manager for IDC Manufacturing Insights' Connected Vehicle Strategies research, says the firm recently conducted a survey of 1,000 consumers, which found that three-quarters of respondents would prefer to use their current mobile devices to access in-car services. In fact, consumers wouldn't leave their phones behind if they could 60% of respondents said they would prefer their existing devices to connect to their cars, whereas less than 19% of respondents said they would prefer services to come directly from the vehicle without mobile device integration

"According to our study, most consumers find it vital to access the phone in the vehicle but also want to maintain their digital identity' by connecting their current device to the vehicle," Brennan says. "Therefore, automakers that have a strategy that allows consumers to access their own devices service as well as any unique embedded services that come with the vehicle will gain an advantage in the connected vehicle market."

So, despite Steve Jobs's prior dreams of an Apple iCar, Apple's decision to offer iOS integration to as many car manufacturers as possible may be an attempt to get in early on a potentially large market. That Google is doing the same should come as no surprise.

Though it's too soon to tell who will succeed or fail in the market, the research suggests that it could be a big opportunity for both. Brennan says IDC research suggests that all future vehicles will incorporate "infotainment" systems and access to mobile apps.

Even more promising for the market is that consumers are already willing to pay for in-car connectivity. Brennan says 50% of IDC's survey respondents said an annual fee of $24 to $60 would be "reasonable" for connected and emergency in-car services. Thirty-five percent said these services should be available for free.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Ciscoand Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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