Why Ford is dumping Microsoft for Blackberry's QNX OS

Ford joins a slew of other automakers by moving toward open source via the open standards-based QNX in-vehicle operating system

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According to the reports, Ford also considered Google's Android-based OS before choosing QNX Software Systems.

Ford has yet to confirm its move away from Microsoft. "We do not discuss details of our work with others or speculate on future products for competitive reasons," a spokesman said.

But if Ford is in fact embracing more open standards, it isn't alone. Many automakers are working to standardize on a open-source operating system for IVI systems that would make it easier for cars to act more like smartphones.

The IVI system is a "black box" that powers a car's audio and entertainment systems, as well as hands-free phone services and satellite navigation systems. Most IVIs today have touchscreens and can be voice-activated, but many car buyers pass up those options.

"Today, automakers are having a hard time getting customers to buy informatics systems because they only can do 10% of what a mobile phone can do," said Rudi Streif, who leads the Automotive Grade Linux workgroup for the Linux Foundation.

Ford wants its IVI to act more like a smartphone or tablet, which can't be done using Microsoft's OS. For example, Ford's Sync with MyFord Touch (the premium Ford IVI system) is said to offer connectivity to more than 60 applications, mostly non-mainstream apps.

Blackberry's QNX is already used by General Motors, Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and other automakers to run IVI systems that connect mobile devices to in-car technology. Audi has also built a concept car using QNX.

QNX is only one of several open-source IVIs

Google, QNX and GENIVI, a nonprofit auto industry alliance, are driving the adoption of open-source IVI development platforms. The alliance, which claims 180 industry members, is looking to align platform requirements, deliver reference implementations and offer certification programs to automakers.

The Linux Foundation is also driving open source efforts in the automobile industry. In 2012, it launched the Tizen Project, a reference architecture and software development kit (SDK) for a Linux-based IVI. Tizen's SDK allows developers to use HTML5 to write applications for the system.

An open-source IVI operating system creates a reusable platform consisting of core services, middleware and open application layer interfaces that eliminate the redundant efforts required to create separate proprietary systems. By developing an open-source platform, carmakers can share upgrades.

Automakers could then focus on differentiating infotainment systems through user interfaces, which only make up about 5% to 10% of the code in IVIs.

"We're leveraging essentially an $11 billion investment already made in Linux by many other companies including IBM and Intel," Streif said. "We can essentially get the platform for free from a royalty sense. Of course, we have to spend resources to make it work in our particular platforms."

Could this save Blackberry?

Struggling BlackBerry could be buoyed by QNX.

Gartner's Koslowski said while QNX won't likely save Blackberry as it exists today, it may help redefine the company.

"I don't think that's what the current owners of Blackberry have in mind, but I do believe it will create a longer-term revenue stream for them that at some point might even become more of a core for Blackberry," Koslowski said. "I can't say it will save Blackberry based on the old Blackberry because it is quite different."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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