7 things you need to know before developing a car app

Are you bored with the same old smartphone apps? Why not try developing for cars?


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Car makers have started a major offensive to get more apps in their vehicles and open up to outside developers. Their efforts have sparked an interest in the developer community. “A year ago there was very little interest from mobile developers because the automotive market was perceived as being too insignificant,” says Linda Daichendt, Executive Director of the Mobile Technology Association of Michigan, a trade organisation for the mobile/wireless industry located in the heart of automotive country: Detroit. “In late 2013 there was a tremendous surge in vehicle manufacturer outreach to mobile developers with extensive marketing programs. Now there is a much higher level of interest from developers in trying to understand the needs of the automotive companies and how they can profit from working with this market segment. As a result, 2014 is seeing a large number of Connected Vehicle conferences and training programs that are very well attended by the mobile developer community.”

According to Linda, education will be the key to unlock developer engagement and creativity. We thought we’d put in our own 2 cents with our latest report: “Apps for connected cars? Your mileage may vary””. In the free report we describe the state of automotive developer programs in 2014. Here are already 7 things you ought to know before getting into car apps. Many more details inside!

  1. [tweetable]There are 4 ways to develop a car app[/tweetable]. If you want to build an in-vehicle infotainment app, you can run it either on the car’s head unit (the dashboard) or run your app on a mobile device (smartphone or tablet) that is linked with the car. In the latter case, your app’s UI can be mirrored on the dashboard screen using APIs like Mirrorlink or CarPlay. If you want to make an app (in the car, in the cloud or on any device) that uses data from the car, you can use a car maker’s vehicle data API or access the On-Board Diagnostics port (OBD-II) using a bluetooth dongle.VisionMobile-Connected_Car_Apps-02-4_ways_to_develop
  2. [tweetable]There are 3 routes to market for car apps. Two of them are painful. The third is very early stage.[/tweetable]
    • Partner with car makers to get the app pre-installed in the vehicle or featured on a car maker app store. This process takes 2-6 months in the best case. You’ll have to audition with car makers to be allowed to distribute your app, and you’ll be at their mercy for much of the UI design.
    • Distribute apps on major mobile app stores (iOS, Google Play). Still, the approval of car makers is needed to distribute apps using their APIs. You’ll need to sign a distribution contract with the car maker in most cases.
    • Distribute apps on major mobile app stores (iOS, Google Play) while using an OBD-II dongle to get vehicle data. In this case, you need to convince your user to buy and install a hardware dongle. Platforms like Dash and Carvoyant that allow you to access data from an installed base of dongles have only recently launched, and don’t have a large user base yet (in the tens of thousands at most).
  3. [tweetable]The addressable market for car apps is in the lower millions of app installs[/tweetable]. If you were to produce a car app today and push it in the market with all your might, you can expect at most a few million installs across all platforms. It will probably take you several years to get there. Consider the example of Pandora, one of the most popular car apps around. It took them 3 years and over 30 partnership agreements to reach 4 million unique users. Nokia HERE, the navigation platform, claims to be behind 4 out 5 in-car navigation systems. They have sold 10 million licenses in 2013. Compare this to a potential of hundred of millions of installs on iOS or Android for the top apps. (Apps like Gmail or Facebook will probably count billions of installs when adding up all the platforms.)
  4. [tweetable]…but you’ll face much less competition in car apps than on the mobile app stores[/tweetable]. In our Developer Economics report series, we talk about millions of individual mobile app developers on each major platform. There are hundreds of thousands of app publishers on an organisational level. Based on data from analytics firm Priori, we estimate that each distinct app sub-category or use case has on average 1,500 apps competing for the user’s attention.
    In contrast, VisionMobile currently estimates the amount of car app developers at around the ten thousand mark, based on reported figures from car makers that have developer programs. It is still possible to “ride the wave”, i.e. to have an early-mover advantage on car apps just like it existed on smartphones in 2008 or tablets in 2010.
  5. [tweetable]Revenue opportunities for car apps are fuzzy and unproven at best.[/tweetable] Most car makers and car app platform players have not thought through the revenue model question. A common answer is: “the developer can use whatever revenue model he chooses or he is already using”. As we know from mobile apps, it’s not that simple. If you’re relying on an App Store based app for revenue generation, then paid downloads are all but dead in terms of revenue (except navigation apps perhaps), display advertising seems like a no-go and an in-app purchase during normal use seems pretty unlikely, or at least high-friction.
  6. [tweetable]You must design an app that can be operated at 65 mph / 100 km/h without crashing (not your app! your user!).[/tweetable] Safety concerns around driver distraction are absolutely paramount for the car makers you’ll be working with. This is the single biggest difference between car apps and the mobile apps you’re already familiar with. The feeling among car makers is that developers tend to underestimate the importance of new UI paradigms quite a lot – and you’ll be thoroughly scrutinized on it. Expect a learning curve.
    This of course doesn’t apply for car apps that are not used while driving or don’t require user interaction – by no means a niche area! Think insurance, fleet management, car sharing, maintenance and reselling: the list is endless.
  7. [tweetable]Things are moving fast. Your life is about to get easier as platform plays similar to iOS and Android are set in motion[/tweetable]. The introduction of Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Open Automotive Alliance (and to a lesser extent Windows in the Car) seems to herald a tipping point in the industry. Here are two players that have a deep expertise in solving fragmentation, in building developer communities and in enabling developers to add value. There is now a realistic and acute possibility that these new entrants will sweep away the existing car app platforms with a dominant, over-the-top solution, just as they did in the smartphone world. You can find an overview of all the important platform contenders in our report.

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