Brown’s Bytes – Cars and Phones

Welcome to Brown’s Bytes! Your weekly insight from Mobliciti’s CTO Andy Brown. Follow #brownsbytes

26th April 2019

Something a little off-topic this week – cars. Stay with me though as I’m talking about the world of mobile devices in cars and how it has now evolved to the point where it will potentially start to drive a user’s mobile device and maybe even car choice.

Not so very long ago (at least in my eyes) the mobile phone only really existed as a car phone form factor device. Devices were basically so big, heavy and needed so much power that the only logical place you could run one was in a car. These devices were retrofitted into cars by specialist companies. On the high street here in the UK we still have the remains of this era with Carphone Warehouse still a brand name!

The mobile phone came later and when it did, there were option car kits again that could be retrofitted to cars to allow these early devices to charge up and make use of external antennas for better coverage. For a surprisingly long time, this was the status quo in the market right up to the days of BlackBerry – I can remember arranging specialist car kits for the various phones we supplied, right up to the mid to late noughties. By now Bluetooth existed, but cradle type car kits were still needed. Now, the reason for this was simple… in car entertainment supplied by many car manufacturers was pretty rubbish and any evolution in it took years to trickle into the market due to the simple fact that people would keep cars for years.

However, over time it did evolve, and Bluetooth was where we finally started to kill off the dedicated car kit (although even now there’s a market for Bluetooth accessories for cars). Generally, though we reached a point where cars came with Bluetooth capabilities and could be paired with just about any phone thanks to the Bluetooth standard. This now allowed for the making and receiving of calls in the car.

And then along came music…

In-car music has also been on an evolution from cassette to CD and then along came the iPod. The in-car world slowly adapted to this and it really isn’t that long ago that brand new cars were boasting about their iPod connectivity options (some probably still do) to add to the Bluetooth phone call capability.

And sat nav…

Even more of a mess initially with loading CD/DVD updates into the nav system.

At last – smartphone convergence!

As with so many other areas, the smartphone turned all this upside down. People now had devices in their pocket that could do everything they needed in the car – it had sat nav, music / media & phone already in place.

The problem was accessing this power in a legal way whilst driving.

Now, in my case, all this has been brought into sharp relief by my fairly recent purchase of a new car – a BMW (I am a CTO after all!).

BMW like many other manufacturers have invested a lot of time and effort over the years on their in-car entertainment systems. It is increasingly at the heart of the car and in effect it is an in-car computer for all the features that a smartphone already provides!

It’s been fascinating to see how BMW are grappling with trying to keep you within their software Eco system whilst supporting the necessary integration of people’s devices into the car.

Now when I got the car, I had an Android device. Nothing too off-piste or new, just a Samsung Galaxy S8. A pretty popular handset around the world.

So, I paired the device with my new motor. The old school phone functions worked flawlessly. I could make and receive calls just fine. Next, I wanted to play some music from Spotify… should be easy enough and indeed I could get Bluetooth audio working just fine. However, I could only play something that was already cued up. I couldn’t browse the Spotify menus to find something different without stopping and getting the phone out.

Obviously, I wasn’t the first person to want to do this and I was pleased to learn that there was a Spotify app for my car that could magically come to life. All I had to do was install the BMW Connected App on my phone as well.

So, I did… and it didn’t work.

So, I Googled it… and found I now needed to update permissions on my phone to allow the BMW Connected App to have elevated privileges to communicate with the Spotify app.

So, I did… and it worked. Kind of. It was a bit flaky and slow, but 8 times out of 10 I could now browse Spotify from the car menu. So not too bad.

And then one day it broke for no obvious reason. Turns out Spotify had updated their app, and this had broken the BMW integration (or hack if you ask me). My phone had auto updated to the new version and I was stuffed. The only advice online was to downgrade the app to an older version and to do this you needed to download a dodgy APK from somewhere and side load it on the phone… which is obviously something I would not recommend. Contacting BMW for help was comical – their response was to tell customers to contact Spotify and complain.

All a bit rubbish to be honest. And that’s before we talk about BMW built in navigation vs Google Maps or Waze.

Now I had an Android phone – Surely Android Auto was the answer!

Nope – BMW don’t support it.

However, they do support Apple CarPlay. So, I switched back to iOS – remember the old phone challenge – this was one of the reasons for doing it! BMW then charged me a subscription to enable CarPlay!! Cheeky sods, but I paid up.

Now, CarPlay is a revelation. It works so well I no longer go back to the BMW menus underneath. I now have precisely what I want in the car:

  • Phone calls
  • Waze Navigation
  • Spotify

It’s not a long list of requirements really and it’s been painfully hard to get there, but there are two key takeaways for me:

  1. I can’t change back to Android now unless I change my car
  2. When I do change my car, I will think twice about buying BMW again due to fact they charge for features that are free on cheaper cars and it restricts my choice of handset as well.

Now this is a very personal experience, but it shows how our daily lives are increasingly built around our phone. Even our car purchases could be influenced by them in the future.

As people’s lives evolve around the smartphone so does the inertia to ever change OS. This matters for the enterprise market too. Something to ponder