After a good decade and a half in-vehicle infotainment is still something of a mess. Practically every automaker has taken its own approach to implementing advanced connectivity technology. And just like freshly fallen snowflakes no two solutions are alike.
OEMs, suppliers and third-party companies are battling for consumer mindshare as well as the precious real estate located front and center on every vehicle’s dashboard. Tech giants like Apple and Google are even getting in on the automotive action as the industry pushes to deliver more capable and easier-to-use electronics.
In spite of the big guys throwing their weight around there’s probably still room in the market for small companies. Abalta is one such firm and they’ve developed an affordable infotainment solution. Their technology is called Weblink and it taps into the computing capability of your smartphone to do some pretty interesting things.
Modern mobile devices are pretty amazing. These handheld gadgets essentially put the sum of all recorded human knowledge in your pocket. You can find out who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, locate a nearby place to get your car’s tires rotated or even play a game of chess with someone in Taiwan, all while riding the bus or eating a pulled-pork sandwich in the park; it’s incredible.
These “phones” are more powerful than full-blown desktop computers of just a decade ago, so why not put them to use? Michael O’Shea, president and CEO of Abalta Technologies, Inc. said, “the essential idea is that we’re leveraging the phone to drive the in-car experience.”
We’ve got a perfectly good browser in our pocket,” O’Shea added, “What if we used the phone to render the apps?” This is the core idea of Weblink. Applications run on the device and then are pushed to the in-car screen, which functions as little more than a display. Users can connect the two via a USB cable, WiFi or even Bluetooth.
Abalta’s technology allows essentially any HTML5 app to run in the phone’s browser. Additionally native iOS or Android applications and be used as well.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
To get started O’Shea said, “You have to launch an app – probably an OEM app with the Weblink component (in it),” though the system can be configured to start as soon as a phone is plugged into the car. “The connection is made with the head unit and away you go.”
Of course automakers or aftermarket companies can customize the look and feel of the user interface to suit their brand.
After Weblink is up and running you’re given access to vehicle-specific apps. No one should be allowed to read The New York Times while driving and fortunately this system doesn’t allow just anything to run; it’s not simply mirroring your smartphone’s interface. Apps are specially coded to be driver friendly and automatically scale to the dimensions of the vehicle’s display. “It can accommodate pretty much any screen (size),” said O’Shea, which is a major bonus.
In the case of HTML5 apps, they’re located in the cloud and run on your phone’s browser. The advantage of this is that the browser is more than likely up to date and compliant with the latest standards, something that’s rarely the case with in-car browsers.
Of course native applications can be coded to work with Weblink as well. Optimized versions of a handset’s built-in navigation system or streaming-music service for instance can be projected onto a car’s big display screen. The possibilities are almost endless.
Adding another feather to its flexibility cap, Weblink supports all of the major smartphone operating systems on the market today including Android, iOS, Windows Phone and Blackberry 10.
Since the user’s phone does all of the heavy lifting, “We can keep the cost of the in-vehicle system really low” O’Shea said.
Abalta is targeting emerging markets with Weblink. O’Shea noted that systems costing OEMs as little as $150 are in the works.
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Compared to some notable rivals O’Shea said their solution is better suited to value-priced vehicles, adding there’s “a pretty significant gap at the low end,” which is where they’re aiming to become a major player.
Aside from Weblink’s refreshing affordability the system should also provide ample performance for years to come. Compared to conventional infotainment systems, which are in service for literally the life of a vehicle, people typically replace their smartphones every two or three years, meaning they’ve always got the latest computing power in their pockets. Once a car or truck leaves the factory it’s extremely unlikely to ever receive any electronic hardware updates.
CHOOSE YOUR RELIGION
But what about the gorilla in the room, or rather gorillas? Apple is pushing its CarPlay system while Google is fielding Android Auto. These monolithic firms are finally starting a push into the automotive sphere.
Of course Abalta is much smaller than either of these tech giants; they’ve only been around for 11 years and currently have about 25 employees. But in spite of these odds O’Shea said, “There’s still a bit of white space for guys like me,” especially in emerging markets like China and Brazil where cost is king.
He likens Google and Apple to “cornflakes and Rice Crispies.” He said the future would be pretty boring if we only had two infotainment choices going forward.
The flexibility of Weblink along with its platform-neutral approach gives it advantages over systems offered by the big guys. According to O’Shea their technology is just “another path forward.”
Getting units into vehicles is critical, and fortunately for Abalta they’ve found some success in this area. O’Shea said, “There will be systems in the market by the end of this year,” though he can’t say if Weblink will launch with an automaker, supplier or aftermarket company. But stay tuned, it may be coming to a dashboard near you.