Thursday, October 25, 2012

Can I get a roadmap? Amen!

I attended SAE Convergence last week, and I've got a couple observations that I'll be blogging about. Here’s the first.

The Panel
On the second day of the show, I attended a very informative OEM panel moderated by Paul Hansen. Paul asked the automakers what their suppliers could do to help them build their infotainment systems. Alan Amici from Fiat said, "I would like suppliers to share their roadmaps," to which the other OEMs nodded in agreement. On the surface, this seems like a rather gentle, generic request. However, I think it's actually a powerful insight that signals a fundamental change in our industry. Mr. Amici took a cue from our former president Theodore Roosevelt, speaking softly but carrying a big stick. Let me elaborate.

The History
If you stepped back in our way-back machine to three years ago or earlier, you'd find a persistent pattern. Every OEM would fully spec every software feature of every module. Which meant that every Tier 1 and software supplier, including QNX Software Systems, would have to jump through hoops trying to cut, fold, and tear their existing software to meet those custom specs. It also meant building tons of new software on top to fill the gaps. The reasoning here is pretty simple — an automaker is building a custom system, so why not build something that reflects exactly what they want? In this environment, we always presented our software roadmap and the OEMs would look politely, but it rarely influenced their designs. Instead, we ended up providing a completely bespoke version of our software stack.

The Change
About two years ago, we started to notice a powerful undercurrent in automotive that bucks this trend. Why the change? OEMs absolutely need to create consumer relevant products, and to reduce the time required to release them. More and more, they need to reuse rather than re-invent. Several OEMs at the forefront of this trend have already been exploring this. How? By working directly with the Tier 1 and suppliers to design the system with an eye towards heavy reuse of existing technologies, instead of trying to design each system from the ground up.

The Apps
This effort to reuse instead of recreate will be necessary not just to reduce the time of delivery, but also to enable any type of cross-brand app experience. Apps that live in app stores require a consistent set of APIs. It’s very hard to do that if every single OEM is busy customizing and recreating every aspect of the system software. The “we’ll design our own” approach will result in fragmentation even worse than that experienced by the Android community. Unconstrained, it carries the threat of creating dozens of independent silos, with no ability to share apps between car makers. It means dilution of the already small automotive volume into even tinier markets — one for each automaker — which doesn’t bode well for anyone building automotive apps. OEMs will need to buck the desire to customize everything if they want to build a thriving app community.

The Punchline
When automakers are focused on their value-add, like HMI designs and custom features, instead of reinventing plumbing, it helps everyone. The OEMs, the tier ones, and the software suppliers benefit from using a consistent platform amongst themselves. So Mr/Ms Carmaker: would you like to see our roadmaps? We'd absolutely love to share them. We’d even like to help build them with you!

This post originally appeared in Andy's True Gryc blog.

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