The infotainment systems in new cars are probably the most easily detectable influence of how consumer technology is changing the auto industry. A decade of smartphones has changed our expectations; now we’re accustomed to frequent updates that car makers are still trying to wrap their business models around. As Ron Amadeo found out in his mammoth review, some infotainment systems are definitely better than others, but it’s fair to say that the best ones are really quite good.
We are also at the point where third parties are developing apps for these car platforms, which is probably a good thing, as the sad ending to Windows Phone illustrates. (A couple of caveats: yes, it’s not quite analogous to the smartphone market, and I doubt that an infotainment system will be the main reason someone decides to buy a particular make or model. And yes, Apple and Google have created “casted interfaces” for iOS and Android. But the number of apps that are compatible with this mode is limited, and plenty of OEMs are yet to add CarPlay or Android Auto support to their infotainment platforms.) For example, Parkmobile recently added an app for BMW’s iDrive platform, and iHeartRadio has been very active in porting its app to multiple infotainment platforms.
I’ve been curious about whether it’s a challenge to get one’s app on all these platforms. Sadly, getting developers to talk on the record hasn’t been particularly easy, but Michele Laven, president of business development and partnerships at iHeartMedia, did give Ars some feedback on the process.
We view these platforms as extensions of our brands and as part of our mission to ensure that the consumer is able to access our content wherever and whenever they might want to listen. Research tells us that a majority of consumers use AM/FM radio in the car. And, while more than 91 percent say they don’t want to see changes made to the traditional knob and dial user experience, we view iHeartRadio integrations in the digital dash as yet another opportunity to reach our listeners. Although the automotive space requires development for numerous platforms, I wouldn’t consider it to be substantially different than the numerous smart TV brands, virtual assistants, or any other category, all of which require custom integrations.
I asked Laven if that meant a lot of writing apps from scratch or if there was much carryover (for example, between different QNX-based platforms). “There are overarching principles that apply across OEMs in terms of what is permissible with driver distraction and what user experiences work best in a vehicle,” she told me. “But each platform and integration certainly has its own nuances. We use similar code across platforms whenever possible, and the movement toward a handful of core operating systems has helped to streamline, but it’s fair to say that each integration is unique.”
That makes me think it’s almost certainly a good thing that Google is now working with OEMs to produce an Android Automotive infotainment system. That should mean the barrier to developing native infotainment apps is much lower.
From the sounds of what Laven told me, the slower rate of change in the automotive world is also something app developers have to worry about. “It’s a continual process of balancing priorities and deploying resources for maximum impact,” she said. “Our flagship iHeartRadio mobile apps are able to evolve continuously, and we do a lot of testing and learning across product releases. The automotive space has long product cycles, which creates a constant challenge.”
While this is a perspective from a developer, I’m also interested in the end-user perspective, so please share your experiences using third-party infotainment apps in the comments.