This week the world of mobile computing turned its attention to the automobile industry because of fresh headlines that Google has signed a deal with Audi to power its in-car entertainment and information systems.

This isn’t a new topic, obviously. Last October I had a conversation with a hard working Bay Street analyst who told me he’d been talking to plenty of car manufacturers and many of them were looking at Android, not QNX.  We’ve also seen Apple working on in-car iOS deals with a huge list of car makers.

So what about BlackBerry? Ever since the Waterloo smartphone maker bought QNX Systems we have all hoped BlackBerry would become a much stronger force in the automotive market.  As much as I’d like that to happen, I will be the first to admit we’ve seen a lot of talk, and not so much action.  Perhaps that action is behind the scenes, and takes years to develop since the design cycle of a car is much longer than that of a phone. Or perhaps QNX has been developing deals that go beyond the infotainment systems that we see, hear and touch.  I’ll return to this further down.  Just to cover off all bases, it’s also possible that QNX is simply not growing.  Perhaps John Chen’s drive for greater business transparency will reveal the answer in the coming quarters if revenues are actually reported for the QNX Embedded Systems business.

I’d like to dive a bit deeper into this topic.  Keep in mind I’m not a software expert by any means, and I’m only interpreting what I read and asking what I hope are smart questions.  

Apple has plans to enable cars to interact with iOS devices.  Does this actually mean that iOS has to be installed on the car?  That’s one possibility, but it doesn’t look like the only way to go. Apple seems to be focused on letting iOS users interact with their phones by way of the car audio and navigation system.  Want to tell your phone to lookup directions and AirPlay them to the car’s screen?  That sounds nice.  What about telling your phone (via your car) to play an album on your audio system?  Yeah,  that’s a no brainer.  

Ever since the Waterloo smartphone maker bought QNX Systems we have all hoped BlackBerry would become a much stronger force in the automotive market

None of these things seem to require a full version of iOS in the car.  What if companies who were already using QNX simply built an application to run on the embedded operating system to allow the car to interact with iOS?  And the same goes for Android.  We already know Android can run on top of QNX since it is happening today on every commercial BlackBerry 10 device out there.  If you are a car company do you really want to take a chance at swapping out the proven reliability of QNX and running Android, risking the possibility that the entire car’s infotainment system might crash?  Maybe it would be smarter to connect to Android devices through an app (or process) running over the existing QNX system, such that if a crash occurs you’d just lose Android connectivity for a moment while the process rebooted itself?

In short, I suspect there is a difference between the real time operating system that runs at the heart of an infotainment system (i.e. QNX) and the higher level software (i.e. processes and apps) that humans interface with.  It doesn’t seem obvious to me that the implementation of iOS and Android functionality in cars means removing QNX.  I’d love to hear thoughts from others who know this topic in more detail.  I’m really just scratching the surface here.

I think next week we’ll start to get a better idea of what’s really happening.  BlackBerry has promised to show off new QNX features in cars, and it’s widely expected that Google and Audi will show off what they’re up to.  

Other than what I’ve already talked about above, my suspicion is that QNX is focused on cloud services and cellular functionality in cars. They’re already strong in infotainment systems, and they need to make it easy for their customers to support iOS and Android connectivity.  But they also need to leverage the BlackBerry NOC to let cars, car companies and customers communicate with each other.  For example, when your car needs service it should be able to automatically tell your dealer, schedule an appointment and send out a reminder. The car should be able to subscribe to services from streaming music to Netflix in the back seat to crowd-sourced traffic data that doesn’t necessarily rely on your smartphone’s limited battery power.  I’m sure more creative minds can come up with better ideas than me.

What kinds of cloud services do you think BlackBerry will announce next week at CES in Las Vegas?