It occurred to me recently that Android's explosive growth in North America might have a cumulative effect on how phones are used in vehicles. With a more open operating system and breathing room for custom configurations, it stands to reason that this is an ideal platform for in-car integration. But is the increasing fragmentation causing more harm than good?
This is a question worth asking because Android is in so many consumers' hands these days, and just as importantly, it has the staying power that can push innovation from both the automakers and the aftermarket. True, Apple's iOS ecosystem is more pervasive and arguably the biggest driver for in-car mobile device infotainment, but Android gets a solid piece of that pie, too.
However, there is a significant difference between the two ecosystems that affects how integrated they can be. For iOS, the standard is more or less the same with each successive launch (though that may change with the possibility of a new iPhone connector). For Android, it's not quite so uniformed or seamless. The fact that Android devices generally all use microUSB ports belies the mess on the software side.
Pioneer's AppRadio platform is a good example of this in the sense that it is designed to integrate compatible apps onto the head unit's screen, but is limited to specific devices and versions of Android. The emerging bugaboo for Google's operating system - fragmentation - rears its head again.
Pioneer isn't alone here, either. Other units from Clarion, Alpine and Kenwood also face the same obstacles when handling Android and its litany of versions, customizations and vendor controls. The Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X may be the premier Android handsets right now, but neither of them integrate with Pioneer's AppRadio. That's mainly because the aftermarket has to accommodate not only a particular version of Android, but also the customized iteration that has been embedded in it.
I've written about this particular issue before, suggesting that Google needs to eventually centralize Android's evolution, so that it becomes easier to grow the platform's viability beyond just mobile devices. But so long as the operating system is given away for free to manufacturers, they'll continue to tinker with it in whatever way they can to stand out in a crowded market.
Ice Cream Sandwich is the latest version of the OS on smartphones, while 4.1 Jelly Bean has debuted on the Nexus 7 tablet. The majority of Android users, however, are still on 2.3 Gingerbread, which doesn't translate as well in the car than Ice Cream Sandwich certainly could.
But let's assume that phones running on Ice Cream Sandwich could integrate far easier. There would still be no guarantee that the One X would be just as compatible as the Galaxy S III. And though the firmware of a head unit like AppRadio can be upgraded via USB to accommodate new development and compatibility, the rate with which Android evolves and changes with each major phone launch only exacerbates the problem.
Soon enough, Jelly Bean will roll out to the top Android smartphones, leading to even more of a fragmented market that will make it tough for both OEMs and the aftermarket to find innovative ways to interact with apps in the car. Apple, meanwhile, will continue its vertical approach. RIM and Microsoft will do the same once their new platforms are in the hands of consumers.
This is a shame because the openness of Android should provide the kind of flexibility manufacturers and developers need to create interesting ways to interact in the car. The issue of safety even demands it. It's just hard to do it when the most widely adopted operating system in the world is a fragmented mess.
Parrot took a slightly different approach by embedding it in its Asteroid MKi9200 head unit. Apps are built-in rather than funneled from a smartphone. That offers convenience, but the future of Android in the car will have to be the same the other way around. And if Google isn't willing or able to make Android's succession less chaotic, it's probably up to aftermarket manufacturers to think of unique methodologies to get more out of the platform.