2014's battle for dashboard supremacy: Apple's CarPlay vs. Google's OAA vs. MirrorLink

Cars have been getting smarter and smartphone connectivity is better than ever, but 2014 should be a quantum leap forward for smartphone connectivity. Join us as we look at the main contenders.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
11 min read

There's a battle ahead, one that many may not have seen coming. Perhaps because it's starting for an odd reason. You see, the auto industry has, more or less, ceased making bad cars. These days they're all pretty good. They'll start on a cold morning, idle happily in traffic on a hot afternoon, protect you in a crash, and look pretty good while doing it. Sure, that last point is always debatable, and certainly some cars are better suited for different tasks than others, but the key is that it's genuinely hard to buy a "bad" new car.

While that's a very good thing, it has the interesting side effect of making it mighty hard for auto manufacturers to stand above the crowd. So, while performance and efficiency continue as strong talking points, in-car technology has become one of the most important points of differentiation for auto manufacturers. The amazing pace of advancement of mobile technology has raised the bar. Most car shoppers walk into the dealership with an incredibly advanced and easy-to-use piece of consumer electronics in their purse or pocket, and so it's natural they'd want their next car to offer some of the same appeal.

Apple demoes CarPlay in a Mercedes-Benz (pictures)

See all photos

Carmakers have spent years and millions of dollars creating ever-more-advanced infotainment systems and, tragically, none holds a candle to the appeal of any current mobile operating systems. To most consumers, it seems blatantly obvious that the phone should simply handle all the heavy lifting. In 2014 that finally begins to become a reality across the industry, but the issue isn't as simple as it seems.

Driver distraction and brand differentiation

Bracketron Mi-T Grip dashboard mount for smartphones
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Look at a modern smartphone. Then, go tap on any of the recent touch-screen interfaces found in a modern car. By and large, the shift is jarring. These infotainment systems are often slow, frequently sluggish, and quite generally aesthetically challenged. This is why so many consumers simply want to replicate their phone on a bigger touch screen in the car and call it a day. Sadly, that won't work.

The primary challenge is driver distraction. Quite simply: mobile operating systems aren't safe while driving. Never intended to be thumbed whilst behind the wheel, study after study shows that trying to do so makes you about as capable as the average drunk. An interface safe to use while driving must be significantly simpler, significantly tighter, and, often, uglier. There are now regulations and testing procedures in the US, EU, and Japan specifying what is allowed, things like maximum time spent looking away from the road and minimum size of graphical controls. Out of the box, none of today's mobile phones satisfy these requirements.

The other concern, which frankly most of you won't care about, is that of branding. Vehicle designers are well-trained -- and well-paid -- to craft beautiful, stylish, and distinctive exteriors. So too are interior designers, spending years chasing proper materials and sculpting desirable ergonomics for their cabins. A hugely important part of the equation is the center stack, the waterfall of controls between the front seats. Manufacturers demand that this be just as strongly identifiable as any other part of the car. If it's simply a dumb terminal, a view into your phone, they're giving up that piece of experience. They're again no better than the competition.

That, for car brands, is a very bad thing. For consumers it could be a very good thing, and in this battle consumers are finally winning.

Foundational elements

Before we look at the main players in the world of smartphone connectivity and infotainment, let's take a step deeper down, to the real-time operating systems that serve as foundational elements. These are the underlying systems upon which car manufacturers build the interfaces that we actually use, but they're so low-level you (hopefully) never see them. Just like Android is built atop Linux and Mac OS X is built atop Unix, in-car infotainment systems have their own foundations.

In the past these base operating systems were often custom, but increasingly carmakers are turning to industry-standard solutions. Ford was one of the first, working with Microsoft to develop SYNC. Beneath SYNC lies a version of Windows Embedded, the same foundation that has powered solutions used by Hyundai, Kia, and others. But, that's where any similarities end. Windows Embedded just provides the basics to keep the lights on, as it were. Everything running on top is custom.

BlackBerry's QNX is another major choice, and has been in the news quite a bit with the talk of Ford dropping Microsoft in favor of this three-letter powerhouse. QNX is run in everything from nuclear power plants to jet fighters, which shows its general level of reliability. Automotive is a major market for QNX, increasingly BlackBerry's most valuable asset.

Another choice is Linux, a custom flavor as specified by the Genivi Alliance, a consortium of auto manufacturers including GM, BMW, Intel, Delphi, and many more.

The important thing to note here is that the choice of this underlying operating system has little or no impact on what sorts of mobile devices the resulting car will support. Ford's Sync AppLink, running on top of Windows Embedded, doesn't offer any support for Windows Phone. Audi's MMI is built atop BlackBerry's QNX, yet the MMI Connect app isn't offered for BlackBerry 10. You get the picture.

Proprietary attempts

Ford Sync with Glympse

Most current attempts at in-car smartphone connectivity -- of the sort more advanced than stringing an audio cable from your headphone port to your car's head unit -- have been provided by the car manufacturers. As such, they're largely very proprietary. Toyota Entune, BMW Connect, Cadillac CUE, Ford Sync AppLink... the list is long and they all share one common attribute: they're completely incompatible with each other.

As it stands, if you're Pandora and you want your app to play in every car on the road, you're stuck extending and rewriting your app again and again. That requires a lot of cost and labor. Ford has been making the strongest effort to standardize by opening its AppLink system and inviting anyone else who wants to use it. However, we must read this as "We'd really want everyone to play ball together, but you're gonna have to come to our field and play with our ball."

Ford's solution is a good one, if limited, providing a simple interface for apps to stream audio through the car and receive voice commands from it. Apps can even pull in some information from car data like location and speed. The openness of the program has been a boon for developers, with over 60 apps now certified and Ford suffering a backlog of test dashboards for developers. "We can't keep up with building the bloody things," Pim van der Jagt, managing director at Ford, told us. Despite that, Ford is still the only manufacturer to support AppLink.

As it stands, no auto manufacturer connectivity solution has come close to establishing a standard. Thankfully, the consumer electronics industry is having a little more success.

The Open Standard: Car Connectivity Consortium's MirrorLink

Tim Stevens/CNET

In 2010, Nokia started showing off something called Terminal Mode. It failed to receive much traction, though it's unclear whether that was due to the killer '80s sci-fi movie name or its origins in a company that was already showing signs of struggle. Now, fours years later, with a new name -- MirrorLink -- and a lot more support, it's starting to show some real promise. (Despite Nokia parent company Microsoft only now deciding to officially add support in Windows Phone.)

"Nokia is committed to Microsoft. I am from Nokia, otherwise I wouldn't be here," Jörg Brakensiek, principal architect at Nokia, told us. "We are working on it, we are committed to do with this."

Though Nokia kicked it off, MirrorLink is a standard maintained by the Car Connectivity Consortium, which counts among its members major auto manufacturers like GM, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and Volkswagen, and smartphone makers LG, Sony, HTC, and Samsung. It has evolved, then, into the potentially perfect mix between industries. Here they've all worked together to define standards and a certification process that ensures apps meet global distraction guidelines. If apps are safe, they become MirrorLink approved and can be displayed on any MirrorLink-equipped car.

This is important. No auto or smartphone manufacturer can block a MirrorLink app simply because they don't like it. Says Brakensiek: "It's not a business model decision. There's nothing about what is the preference of the OEM or the device maker, whether it competes with either of those two. We don't have those gates. We are very transparent and very open. The question is: What does it look like on the other side? What does it look like on the iOS in the Car side? And with Google's initiative? Is it that open? If you look back at history, what they have done, you can have doubts about this."

Tim Stevens/CNET

Brakensiek is quite rightly raising the concern that the solutions from Apple and Google, which we'll discuss momentarily, may include locks and approval blocks for apps that replicate core functionality of the companies that do the approving. However, interestingly, MirrorLink does allow for auto manufacturers to make their own apps and certify them exclusively for their cars. So, there is still an opportunity for differentiation, but to get there you must necessarily open the gates to the creative minds of the world's developers.

Many have made that choice. Toyota was among the first major manufacturers, deploying it in the iQ in 2011. According to Panasonic's Masaya Nishinaka (Panasonic manufactures most of Toyota's in-car infotainment systems), the plan is to come across the model range very soon. Honda has also deployed MirrorLink in its Fit and Civic, a wider roll-out coming next year. GM indicated that it will add MirrorLink in the future and it's coming to the Volkeswagen Polo in a matter of months -- for a 170 Euro premium over the base car. Javier Verastegui, who works at VW's Services and Apps division, told us the company wants MirrorLink in "every model as soon as possible. The sooner the better. This is the year of MirrorLink. This year it has to succeed." Andy Lee, director at HTC, agrees: "With the MirrorLink standard becoming ready, there will be more and more products available from member companies in 2014, so we believe that 2014 will be the year of MirrorLink."

If it does, it'll be no thanks to Ford, or to Apple, for that matter. Ford's van der Jagt said that while standardization is a good thing, this standard may not be. "We have some concerns about what they allow, that you can actually mirror the display of your device. We're very critical of that part... We don't want to mirror. We really want the kind of interface we have now."

And Apple? The door is open if it wants to join in. Said Brakensiek from Nokia: "We'd love to have Apple on board. We have been doing our share in order to use technologies in MirrorLink that are not proprietary, that would prevent other handset manufacturers from coming onboard." Unfortunately for him, Apple has its own plans.

The Powerhouse: Apple's CarPlay

Apple CarPlay

Apple's play for in-car domination is appropriately named CarPlay. When buying a CarPlay-equipped car, which come to market this year, you'll be able to connect your iPhone (5, 5S, or 5C) to your car and it will drive a simplified iOS interface in the dashboard. Note that the dashboard itself is not running iOS, it's providing a simplified version of the phone's UI -- not unlike MirrorLink. Says Nokia's Brakensiek: "On the one hand it's great to see that they have just acknowledged what we have done in the beginning... In the end it's basically the same thing. It's not really bringing iOS into the head unit, the head unit is not running iOS. It's just iOS applications that are showing up there. It's a similar way."

Simpler for Apple in that openness for developers appears to be restricted. At launch, only three third-party apps are supported (iHeartRadio, Spotify, and Beats), and it remains to be seen when and if other developers will be allowed in the party. It's also simpler in terms of the interface, which is very pared down compared even with iOS 7. That's good, for safety reasons, but many have concerns about just what will and will not be allowed. Honda will support iOS in the Car and is eager to do so, but Honda's Yozo Takehara fears a "lack of control" for the standard. Volvo's CIO Klas Bendrik expressed similar concerns, and believed it would be in "mutual benefit" if Apple would listen to, and work more closely with, the automakers.

Apple CarPlay

GM Chief Infotainment Officer Phil Abram has a dissenting opinion. "There is something about a benevolent dictatorship that gets things done." Indeed, given the failure of the auto industry to define its own standards, a little outside dictation might not be a bad thing, and Apple has turned this around in record time. Still, GM isn't convinced this one will be the end-all-be-all. "We're waiting to see which one wins," continued Abrams. "Until then we work with them all."

Ford's van der Jagt, however, said support from Ford won't be coming soon. "It could be in the future but not at the moment." The company believes its current AppLink standard (which does work with iOS apps) is good enough for now. (Note: van der Jagt made these comments at Mobile World Congress the week before Apple announced the name change from "iOS in the Car" to "CarPlay" and announced the full suite of supporting manufacturers. Interestingly, Ford is listed as one of those manufacturers.)

Roger C. Lanctot, associate director at Strategy Analytics, poses another question: that of ongoing support: "What happens when the next iPhone arrives? Will Apple prioritize automotive updates and fixes? Apple does have a team in place -- this is clear. But the track record to date for supporting car makers is not impressive." One need only look at BMW's support for iPod Out for proof. In 2010 this allowed BMW (and Mini) owners to connect their iPhones or iPods, which would take over the dashboard display. When the iPhone 5 rolled out two years later, killing the Dock connector and its video output functionality, BMW's connectivity solution was instantly obsolete.

The Dark Horse: Google's Open Automotive Alliance and Automotive Link

Jason Cipriani/CNET

And what of Google? For years, the company has seemed to ignore the car connectivity angle, that despite building one of the world's best navigation systems in Google Maps and partnering with companies like Mercedes-Benz to actually run Android in certain head units. That's all in the past. Enter the Open Automotive Alliance and its Automotive Link, announced this past January with initial automotive members Audi, GM, Honda, and Hyundai. Like Apple, the OAA promises to have OAA-approved cars on the road by the end of the year.

If Apple's CarPlay is provided by a benevolent dictatorship and MirrorLink was crafted in an open consortium, Google's Automotive Link sits somewhere in between. The standard will likely provide support for third-party developers out of the box, but Google will have final say over approvals and interface details. Yet again, Honda is committed to support the eventual standard, which Honda's Takahara described as "like MirrorLink but controlled by Google" and "built into Android."

Ford, too, seems optimistic about OAA's chances -- but cautiously so. Says van der Jagt: "We have quite a bit of talks with Google and there we are supporting it. We have a lot of interest. We have a pretty good relation with Google." As of now, the OAA is a bit of a black box and the formal details have not been made known to the public. But, expect to learn a lot more at this summer's developer conference, Google I/O.

Prepare for battle

QNX infotainment concept

This year, these three standards collide on dealer lots across the country. If all goes according to the respective plans of their respective parents, they'll quickly sweep aside the dozens of boutique solutions engineered by individual manufacturers and get us to a point where just three standards are at play. That, believe it or not, would be a huge step forward for app developers, for consumers, and even for auto manufacturers.