"Over the top platforms" – do dongles make sense? - Carnectiv

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“Over the top platforms” – do dongles make sense?

The emergence of “dongles” in the car

“Over the top” is an expression we hear a lot right now.  In ICT, people like to use the phrase when they refer to a process, system or technology that goes around a “normal” way of doing things. This alternative route might go “over the top” of a pre-existing established norm. Let’s take an example: a supplier of an app service which enables a smartphone user to phone another person with that app. That app does not use the smartphone’s telco provider mobile call operating and billing system to make the call and charge for it. Instead, the app uses the internet – and bills (if it does indeed bill) the user quite independently, perhaps using a subscription, PayPal or another mechanism. This process goes “over the top” of the telco’s normal voice call provisioning process.

Let’s consider “over the top” in another context. What if app developers could access car data (from a car’s standard OBD port) to input into processes used by their apps, and those apps then provided a service directly to the user of the app. Any billing could be done independently of the auto OEM. Likewise, the smartphone or tablet might do all the computing, perhaps only using the car as a speaker (or potentially as a display screen).

As we know, such OBD access is already well underway, with the increased marketing of “dongles” which plug into the OBD port (see examples backed by Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and smaller guys like Zubie). In fact, they are able to provide users with some “connected car action” right here and right now: no waiting for auto OEMs to develop connected car propositions!

So, is this development attractive for users? Will it catch on? Should we care? Will it last?

Why dongles could be rather cool

It may not be a fact well-known among the general public, but ODB ports can already access a raft of data about your car. The protocols are reasonably standard, with only a little variation between continents. Most auto OEMs enable the OBD port to access all or most of this data; it helps their dealers diagnose faults and service vehicles. This access is likely to remain fairly open, since an auto OEM might face many Block Exemption legal challenges if it closed access. They could not prejudice the ability of independent dealerships to offer car servicing. Cutting off access to the OBD port could therefore be problematic, even if they wanted to do it.

Right now, app developers could do a lot with that information. Data could be used to assist insurers work out whether you drive in a higher or lower risk way. It could help with roadside assistance services. It could provide information about your car’s health to service centres and dealers who could pitch for the servicing, possibly via a service comparison app. It could provide information on ways to improve your driving style…or find cheaper gas etc etc. Elsewhere on carnectiv.com we report all the time on apps, so we all get the gist. It’s just that access to OBD data can easily add to the data provided by the sensors of the smartphone itself.

Insurance companies like Allianz could be interested in what dongle-enabled technology can offer

Insurance companies like Allianz could be interested in what dongle-enabled technology can offer

Will these dongles catch on?

With a dongle retailing for $100 we suspect that only a handful of technology early adopters will be interested. Likewise, whilst OBD-enabled or enhanced services are still in their infancy, the kinds of services available tend to appeal to a geekier crowd. However, the costs will come down fast. There’s also the potential for heavy subsidies should the cost of the dongle be embedded in other services: for example, how about a free dongle when you take out an insurance package? It could actually become quite popular if the entry cost is low to zero, when coupled to compelling, value for money services.

Why should we care?

There are a few good reasons for us to encourage all of this:

  1. By providing an accessible platform, with standard interfaces, it will encourage app development in this space. It will sharpen up in-car mode features of some existing apps. This will all encourage more of the app development community to “think connected car”. And….this may help to keep auto OEMs on their toes. Competition would be good.
  2. More apps and services will enthuse users, whether they be drivers, passengers or owners. This will encourage more app development, and again, drive faster development from auto OEMs
  3. The apps will typically be iOS or Android. This means that any effort on developing them now could be largely re-used as iOS in the Car and Android’s car platform roll out. Or, put another way, developers who move now, will find that they are well placed when the really massive, standardised, Apple and Google platforms dominate. Furthermore, it may help shape some of the agenda for those platforms and help push the boundaries of our expectations of iOS in the Car and Android further
  4. It would put pressure on OEMs providing access to screens for outputs, encouraging mirroring and the like
  5. It’ll take the thinking beyond simply enabling a smart device to use a car’s screen and speakers. It fundamentally sets the expectation that cars should open up their sensors and data as inputs to independent developers’ apps.
Outputting to the car screen would boost the attractiveness of dongle solutions

Outputting to the car screen would boost the attractiveness of dongle solutions

Will it last?

Even if dongles take off, will they last? Well, nothing lasts forever. It’s unlikely that the technology would be anything other than an intermediate one, acting as a “stop-gap” until cars really “open up” offering more standard platform interfaces. However, it doesn’t matter if dongles get superseded by something better. They will have done their job: encourage app developers and service providers; encourage users; spur on auto OEMs to “open up” more; shape some of the specifications and agenda for Google and iOS in the Car. If dongles were to succeed in doing just a few of these things, we should be grateful.

About Jens Mueller

Writing as Jens Mueller, Jens has over 20 years experience in IT and communications systems, working in Europe and the USA. He has been involved in connected car programmes for the past couple of years, and contributes to Carnectiv on a regular basis.

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