Both MirrorLink and Apple's new CarPlay will eventually be able to duplicate some iPhone functions on your car's in-vehicle infotainment system, but MirrorLink can also handle Android, Windows and Blackberry phones. So do we need CarPlay?
As Mercedes Benz became the first car company to demonstrate Apple's new CarPlay interface for iPhone 5 and later models at the Geneva Motor Show, it also reemphasized its support for an OS-agnostic standard for the same purpose.
Mercedes is a founding member of the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), a group of automobile and mobile phones makers developing "MirrorLink," a uniform standard for the integration of smartphones into auto radio head units or in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems.
The goal of Mercedes-Benz, alongside the integration of iOS and Android-based devices, "is to offer maximum compatibility for smartphones with other operating systems," the carmaker said in a statement.
Along with MirrorLink, Google's recently launched Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), aims to connect Android phones and IVI systems. The OAA is also backed by Audi, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and chip maker Nvidia.
"There's not going to be a single automaker just choosing CarPlay. It's short-sighted to do that," said Mark Boyadjis, manager of Infotainment HMI systems at IHS Automotive.
Today, automakers such as Ford allow users to plug iPhones into USB ports and get limited access to apps such as iTunes and streaming music services such as Pandora through proprietary APIs. But MirrorLink and other industry standardization efforts are focused on creating OS-agnostic interfaces.
Like CarPlay, MirrorLink connects a smartphone to a vehicles IVI system via a USB cord and drivers immediately gain access to phone applications via the car's navigation screen and dashboard/steering-wheel buttons.
In 2011, Alpine's ICS-X8 IVI became world's first radio head unit to incorporate the MirrorLink standard. The IVI MirrorLinks with Nokia Android smart phones.
"What's very interesting, when we look at what Apple just put up on their website, that's what we've been doing for two years. The MirrorLink experience looks like [CarPlay]," said Alan Ewing, president of the CCC. "It really validated the approach we'd already taken. But, we think the best mousetrap should win."
Apple is not likely to join the CCC anytime soon, since Apple tends to choose proprietary solutions over shared ones. But the MirrorLink standard supports third-party app developers and could someday introduce a workaround, allowing iPhones to connect to IVIs.
""The Apple [CarPlay] is just one standard. Right now MirrorLink is not compatible with iPhone..., but it can be," Boyadjis said. "It's basically going to be a battle between iPhone, Android and Windows, as well."
MirrorLink is a device interoperability standard and API that basically mirrors smartphone apps on a vehicle's IVI system. The IVI must carry the MirrorLink API on a specific chipset in order to work with certain smartphones.
The MirrorLink standard was originally designed by Nokia, but it is now owned by the CCC, an organization found in 2011. The CCC certifies apps and smartphones for the MirrorLink standard with a specific focus on alleviating driver distraction.
The promise of MirrorLink is that it will eventually enable Android, Microsoft, Blackberry and possibly Apple smartphones to connect to IVI systems. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
"It would be either a software developer or a tier-one supplier who would develop MirrorLink to be compatible with iOS," Boyadjis said. "That could happen in conjunction with CarPlay and in conjunction with something that comes out of the Open Automotive Alliance on the Android side and maybe yet another one.
"The point is that [CarPlay] is just one of many standards," he added.
A Wi-Fi version of MirrorLink is expected in the next version due out later this year, which would allow smartphones to connect wirelessly to IVI systems.
"As a technology standard, one of MirrorLink's greatest attributes is that it is OS agnostic," Ewing said. "We're glad that Apple has recognized that screen replication is a viable solution to using smartphones in the car, but also reaffirms that MirrorLink is the only technology that is not proprietary in nature in this space."
Through its MirrorLink Developer Fast Track program, the MirrorLink API has already created interfaces for some Android apps to link to IVIs, such as Glympse, Coyote and Parkopedia.
At the World Mobile Congress conference last week, Volkswagen, Honda and Toyota also showed factory prototype consoles with MirrorLink capability.
According to IHS Automotive, only about 215,000 cars with Apple's new CarPlay will be sold this year. By 2020, IHS projects about 25 million CarPlay-enabled IVI units will have been sold. "So there's significant growth, but 25 million units is still only 25% of the cars that will be sold, so it's not reaching critical mass, even by the end of this decade," Boyadjis said.
Mercedes and Honda are expected to be the first companies to deliver CarPlay late this year in some 2015 models, Boyadjis said.
"It's just basically a battle between an iOS function, an Android function and Windows Mobile," Boyadjis added. "MirrorLink is a great solution and we'll see other MirrorLink-type solutions, whether it's MirrrorLink branded or another iteration of that technology deployed as CarPlay."
Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.