Google's announcement of Android Auto at the recent Google I/O conference should surprise exactly no one. Apple is gearing up for its own in-car infotainment service later this year called CarPlay. It's long past the time when Google would hang back and see how Apple's approach to a new market worked out -- Android Auto is going head-to-head with CarPlay later this year.
Both companies want their mobile platform with you all the time, but how are they going to convince people to embrace connected cars?
Touchscreens separated at birth
If there is something surprising about Apple and Google's move into in-car entertainment, it's the overall similarity of the approach. The implementations don't rely on hardware inside the car to do any of the thinking -- the smarts are all packed into your phone so you can upgrade your apps and features independent of the car. This circumvents one of the long-time weaknesses of pricey in-car infotainment.
What good is that fancy touchscreen if Apple changes its connector and makes your whole system obsolete? Oh, your car only works with USB mass storage devices? Sorry Android doesn't do that anymore. Since your phone's mobile data connection is used for the dash system, you also won't have to worry about getting yet another data plan for your car, which I'm sure is a sad turn of events for Verizon executives.
When Apple announced CarPlay, it sounded at first like you'd have to get a new car to have CarPlay-compatible setup, but thankfully component makers like Pioneer have stepped up to develop aftermarket decks that will support Apple's platform. Google announced several car audio companies right from the start including Alpine, Pioneer, and JVC. This is a technology segment that has seen decline in recent years as people simply made do with smartphones tethered to inexpensive decks and stock audio systems via Bluetooth or even an audio cable. CarPlay and Android Auto are an opportunity to make aftermarket decks interesting again. This is just another thing Android and iOS in the car have in common.
CarPlay and Android Auto will have cables to plug into the phone using the respective standards (USB and Lightning). The touchscreen is the point of interaction, but voice is also a big part of both these systems. If you want to place calls, cue up some tunes, or just navigate someplace, you can do that with either option. None of that is really new, though. Sticking a phone to your dashboard with a suction cup accomplishes the same thing.
You can certainly make the argument that it's going to be a little easier to use a CarPlay or Android Auto screen, which will probably be much larger and more car-friendly than a phone, but there's also plenty of potential for annoyances.
Voice and Search
Android and iOS both have robust voice control systems. Apple has Siri, which it still insists on referring to as a personal assistant, as if it was a real person. Meanwhile, Google has the expanded voice interaction built into Google Now. Having spent a lot of time with both, I've found Google's voice system to be more useful overall. Every update to Google's search app has the potential to introduce new features and commands, and those will all translate over to Android Auto as the phone is powering the whole thing.
Siri is still ten times more capable than any of the stock voice control systems built into today's cars, though. Compared to Google, Siri seems more prone to connectivity problems and slow performance. As near as I can tell, Siri is actually sending audio to the cloud to be analyzed, whereas Android can parse the voice input locally, then upload just the text to see what it means. There will still be things one system or the other will be better at in the car, but I suspect Google will have a slight edge in voice input.
When you look at the demo versions of CarPlay and Android Auto, there's a striking difference. CarPlay is designed to be like an iPhone. Apple is fond of saying that if you can use an iPhone, you can use CarPlay. It's the same thing it said when the iPad came out. That's good for the learning curve, but it might end up being a little limiting. Android Auto will be a bit less familiar at first, but the main interface is essentially Google Now with a new more shortcut buttons at the bottom.
Google's version of car infotainment doesn't require you to search for everything or open an app to handle things. Instead, cards piped into your Now list should present the sort of data you need without your direct intervention. Each time Google makes Now a larger part of the Android experience, i'm reminded how good it can be (most of the time). Google Now cards can offer up information like directions to addresses you've recently searched for, departure alerts for appointments, the location of nearby shops, and more. The true power of Google now is apparent when you're out and about, which makes it a perfect fit for Android Auto.
An app advantage?
Another important difference in the way Apple and Google will handle the implementation of in-car computing is the way apps are integrated. Apple's CarPlay system is going to have third-party app support, but it's a two-tiered process for developers to get on your dashboard.
CarPlay apps have to be certified for the iOS App Store, then certified again specifically for CarPlay. Some types of interactions (messaging for example) are only going to be possible using Apple's built-in system. Basically, Apple is very concerned about the experience of using apps in the car. That's a valid way to go about things, but it could lead to some frustration as apps are slower to appear on CarPlay.
Google's Android Auto announcement included app support from a number of smaller developers (PocketCasts, yay!), as well as the big names like Spotify, TuneIn Radio, and Umano. The Android Auto SDK will let developers create any kind of messaging or audio app they want, even integrating these capabilities into their existing apps. Getting apps on Android Auto will be a little faster, and the more narrow hardware spec implemented by car and component makers will mean fewer problems with testing.
So, if developers use the Auto SDK to add the necessary elements to their apps, they should come over to the car interface automatically without any additional intervention from Google. The divide might not be huge at launch, but it's possible Android will develop a clear advantage in car-optimized apps, which would be an interesting role reversal.
Some car and component makers have announced plans for systems that can support both Android Auto and CarPlay. There's also a lot of overlap in support for aftermarket decks and cars. Although, not all manufacturers are supporting both systems. For example, Apple is fond of pointing out it has an exclusive on Ferrari and Jaguar. Android Auto will be the system of choice in Volkswagen, Honda, and Maserati.