In recent months the connected auto space has seen a pair of announcements that could well represent a significant shift. Google and Apple both want to be in your car now as well as in your pocket and both have announced specialist versions of their respective mobile operating systems to accomplish this. In Android Auto and CarPlay, Google and Apple have announced competing products that are different and yet very much alike at the same time. And that's great for us, the consumers.
We're not going to see either platform inside new vehicles until the end of 2014, so it gives us plenty of opportunity to take a look at both.
The first is obvious; one is Android and one is iOS. It's obvious but it's also important in defining the experience each will provide. Which you choose to use depends on your smartphone of choice. That means the difference between an Android phone and an iPhone is relayed to your in-car entertainment system.
Android Auto is filled to the brim with Google services. Google Maps, Google Search, Google Play Music and so on. The voice activated features we've come to know in Google Now will be a key point of interaction and Android Auto will also let you use your steering wheel controls to activate this. If you're an Android phone user you've likely already used Google Maps to navigate and Google Play Music in some way to listen to your music in the car. Android Auto takes these services and optimizes them for the environment.
CarPlay on the other hand – naturally – is chock full of Apple services. Apple Maps, iTunes Radio and Siri offer similar OS level features as Android Auto. Which is best is down to personal preference but thankfully a decision you will have made before you pull the trigger on a new car.
The user interfaces are also very different as you would expect. Android Auto is built upon the forthcoming L release and its new Material Design principles. It's distinctively Google which isn't so bad given the massive improvement in visual design over recent years. CarPlay is very distinctively iOS with the big bold app icons instantly recognizable from iOS 7 and a stylishly minimalist approach to the stock apps. It's hard to pick fault with either, but both are comfortingly familiar when projected into the car.
What's perhaps most notable between the two is the software you'll require to run the respective platforms. Apple takes great pride in the adoption rates of its newest versions of iOS and the figures speak for themselves. Android Auto will require Android L and sadly Google's platform adoption rates are not so swift. Frustrated smartphone owners waiting and waiting on the latest updates will be a part of Android Auto. Nexus owners will get it first, owners of other phones may even need to buy a new handset to get something with Android L on, or face waits of unknown duration until their phones are updated.
CarPlay on the other hand is compatible with the iPhone 5 onwards which will be two years old when most vehicles start hitting the road. A luxury that won't be afforded to many Android phone owners when Android Auto starts hitting the dealer forecourts.
Both Android Auto and CarPlay are so similar in how they operate that to a casual observer it would be difficult to distinguish between the two. Both require a compatible smartphone and a connection – at present, at least – via either a microUSB or Lightning cable.
Both platforms will also have their fair share of third-party support from Apps and services. Some big names such as Spotify, iHeartRadio and MLB At Bat have already partnered with both Google and Apple to bring their content into your car. The possibilities are wide open. Apple seems to be keeping its cards closer to its chest with regards how apps will be able to support CarPlay – it seems a little curated right now – but the apps are still regular iOS applications customized for the car.
Google has been a little more forthcoming with its plans, already announcing a messaging and audio SDK for Android Auto. But ultimately you're going to see a lot of the same available for the two platforms. And you're going to see them in a lot of the same cars, too.
That's because the newly expanded Open Automotive Alliance has many of the same partners that Apple has already announced for CarPlay. The likes of Audi, Volvo, Hyundai, Ford and Chevrolet have signed up to support both systems. There are plenty of car makers who're on one or the other right now but there's every possibility we'll see many more deciding to support both.
And of course, there will be third party options for both. So you're not going to be tied to having to buy a new car.
Neither system is pre-installed into a car. Since both are projections from our smartphones that layer over the standard in-car system – in many cases based on QNX – it's entirely possible for the car makers to choose to offer support for both Android Auto and CarPlay on its new models. Quite how this can and will happen isn't totally clear at this point, but Volvo has already announced its intentions to do just this on the new XC90 that will debut at the end of 2014. Whether they'll be offering it as an option when building the car or whether both systems will be supported in the same vehicle we'll have to wait and see.
But by the very nature of how these systems work, we, the consumers, are ultimately the winners. Choosing a car shouldn't be dependent on the smartphone you have in your pocket – and yes, sadly BlackBerry and Windows Phone owners have no choice right now beyond whatever stock systems the car comes with. Having potential access to both is a win.
The bottom line
It's an exciting time to be a fan of both cars and mobile technology. The fact that these two parts of our everyday lives are coming together in such a way is really, truly impressive. While CarPlay may have a leg up in terms of the sheer percentage of iOS users that will be able to use it immediately, Android Auto is just as appetising for folks carrying a Google flavored phone. And possibly another reason to get itchy fingers for that Android L update.
We've not had chance to really use either platform yet, and certainly not in a real world setting. They're both different and they're both so similar at the same time. It's impossible to declare a winner between them, but it's easy to say that we, the buyers of these phones and cars, are the true winners.
So, we're in for an exciting ride, of that there's no doubt. Equally there are sure to be folks in both camps that can't wait to get their hands on Android Auto or CarPlay. If you're hot for one or the other, drop us a line in the comments below and tell us what you're most looking forward to and why!