I’m sure some people would say that the digital revolution is already over. Almost all telephony is digital now. I haven’t seen a VHS or cassette tape in years. Film cameras occupy a relatively small corner of the specialist/hobbyist/hipsterist market, and out of the moviemakers who still opt to shoot on film, there are vanishingly few who don’t digitize it for editing. There are probably young adults now who have never watched a VHS tape or gone to the pharmacy to get photos developed. Progress!
But so much more is possible, even though much of the low hanging fruit has been harvested. The next wave is the incremental improvement of products and devices by adding “smart” digital components that include better human interfaces like touch panels, the ability to be user programmed, and connectivity to other devices and the cloud. These improvements often won’t change the fundamental way something works, as DVD changed video storage and playback wholesale. Rather they will make stuff easier and more fun to use, more efficient, better connected, and able to generate data for analytics, without dramatically increasing the cost. Certainly this has already started, and hopefully Google’s massive $3.2 billion cash outlay to purchase Nest has startled people awake to see it.
Currently Startup Giraffe is building an embedded automotive computer system with a touch screen interface using Android. While it’s true that computer systems in vehicles are nothing new — antilock braking systems have been computerized since the ‘70s — they are only now on the bleeding edge becoming more visible and central to the driver experience. One of the most impressive features of the Tesla Model S is an internet connected center console computer with a 17 inch touch display. If Google’s acquisition of Nest implies that they want to get inside your home and make it smarter, their formation of the Open Automotive Alliance (sister to their Open Handset Alliance which currently develops and maintains the Android Open Source Project) suggests they want to be present in your garage as well. I would expect the OAA to produce and maintain a branch of Android that adds things like SDK support for CAN bus networks, and APIs for use with navigation applications. I also think there may be a new Android compatibility standard developed for embedded automotive systems since the existing Android standard is very focused on handsets.
Does this mean Android is the way forward for the embedded computers that will make our cars and everything else we own better and smarter? It is certainly well positioned for it. It is very flexible, customizeable, and extremely available. While iOS apps tend to have a consistent look and feel across the entire app store, Android is customizable in that UIs don’t have to have a particular style or feel. End users wouldn’t know our dashboard was made with Android unless we told them. And the OS runs on a very wide array of architectures, and has the means to support and interact with exponentially more diverse hardware components like sensors, screens, and network interfaces. Originally designed with low power devices and systems with limited processing and memory resources in mind, supporting hardware doesn’t need to be expensive and battery draining. Its SDK, which developers use when creating applications, is extremely high level, with relatively simple abstractions for wireless communication, GPS, user interface building, hardware accelerated graphics, and touch screen interactivity. When those abstractions don’t go quite far enough, Android provides a very well defined framework for interfacing with the kernel and native linux libraries. It is true that recently Google has reclaimed from Android some of its core functionality, such as maps, in the interest of having tighter control over its usage, closing the source, and delivering updates independent of the device manufacturer. However the community giveth much where Google licensing hath taken away. Continuing to use the example of maps, there is an open source map control called OSMDroid that provides a similar SDK to Google Maps intended for use with open source map data and tile providers.
Most people think only of handsets — phones and tablets — when they think of Android. But we’re finding out that it makes a lot of sense on other types of systems to provide connectivity or to build a UI whether or not it is an open platform for end users, or even whether it will be discernible as Android to them. What are you going to make smarter with Android?