Dev

In-car infotainment is dead. Long live the app

Alex Bratton is CEO at Lextech Global Services, a mobile and web dev shop.

A recent guest post, “Native vs. HTML5: How the auto industry is forcing change for the mobile web,” posits that HTML5 will help automakers win the in-vehicle infotainment battle.

I’d like to offer a different perspective: infotainment and other in-car systems will be replaced by apps that reside on smartphones.

The auto industry and its customers have suffered through incredibly poor user interface design for years. Each make and model has its own system, and they are hardly intuitive for the user. Continuing to deliver a barely good enough experience for customers cannot be the future for these systems. Customers are getting more sophisticated and expect better.


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One of the problems with in-car systems is that they’re already old by the time the technology reaches production. Software has to be developed, tested, vetted and bug free before it enters the multiyear new car cycle.

Manufacturers need to ditch traditional thinking about how apps reside in the console. Instead, the smartphone should drive the app experience, pairing with the on-board screen and tapping into the car’s sensors and tools, such as the GPS receiver, radio, and heating/cooling system. With this screen-within-a-screen concept, the app on the smartphone is the brains of the system.

In many other industries mobility is killing dedicated single-purpose hardware. Consider the handheld barcode scanner and dedicated point-of-sale device. Likewise, the in-car infotainment system will fade away.

This is positive for both manufacturers and customers, enabling apps to be updated regularly after the sale, adding new innovations or features that customers are demanding.

To deliver a great customer experience, these apps must be native. HTML5 apps simply can’t deliver the elegant feel that customers have come to expect from native apps. Since the app is a direct reflection of the brand, a great user experience is crucial to customer satisfaction and loyalty.

The perception among developers has been that HTML5 apps cost less to develop. This may be true for the initial app; however, history shows us that the user experience and developer skill set for HTML5 apps is lacking. Most HTML5 developers understand how to design for the web but lack the experience and understanding of designing for mobile. Mobile requires rethinking how the user interacts with their information, not just shrinking it down in size. In fact, the argument that the HTML5 developer ecosystem is the largest is true, but only because most of these developers are web developers. The time-investment required to create great user experiences with HTML5 apps kills any potential cost savings and ultimately drives many companies to move to native apps. Facebook and LinkedIn are great examples of this.

Connectivity also can be an issue with HTML5 apps, which need an Internet connection. In areas with poor cellular service, the apps will be slow to respond and frustrate the user. Creative engineering can help work around this, but this also erodes any cost savings of HTML5 apps.

Finally, the argument that HTML5 can be written once and run everywhere isn’t quite accurate. Developers still need to perform cross-platform and cross-browser testing and tweaking to ensure the apps work right on a variety of platforms.

For the rich app experience that customers have grown accustom to, auto manufacturers need to change how they think about apps. Native apps that reside on smartphones and interact with on-board systems are the answer to what’s been plaguing in-car infotainment systems since they were introduced to the market.


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