At SCALE 10X in Los Angeles, Alison Chaiken presented on the short-term future of automotive computing, and how open source is well-positioned to make a big impact on the direction that the carmakers take. Several major auto companies are gearing up to release new platforms and SDKs in 2012, most based on Linux. When they do so, Chaiken said, the open source community can show them far more interesting ideas than simple MP3 sales and bird-versus-pig gaming. The land rush has not started yet, but car-specific open source development tools are already available — if you know where to look.
In the car industry, automotive computing platforms are called "in-vehicle infotainment" (IVI) systems, which distinguishes them from the engine-control unit (ECU) computers that manage ignition, fuel-injection, and other critical systems. Pause to let the involuntary shudder triggered by the word "infotainment" settle down, of course, but Chaiken says that the term itself reveals everything that application developers need to understand the situation.
The carmakers are interested in collecting their slice of the lucrative digital entertainment market that is dominating the television, e-reader, and mobile phone "app store" spaces. Some companies have attempted to write the entire IVI stack in-house — usually with disastrous results, such as Ford's broadly panned "MyFord Touch" platform. Fortunately, they have learned their lesson, and are prepared to open up their software platforms to third party developers.
But the carmakers may not be in 100% alignment with their customers. Although they are lured by the idea of an IVI application market with the prospect of a steady MP3, game, and movie rental revenue stream, Chaiken argued, that is not what car buyers want. A survey conducted by GigaOM instead showed that most drivers were interested in safety and security applications: blind-spot alerts, emergency roadside assistance, and other such practical utilities. Social-network-integration simply is not important to them — nor should that be a surprise, since "connected" car-buyers are probably more comfortable using their smartphones to keep in touch with their friends.
In addition, Chaiken said, carmakers cannot be counted on to create applications that theoretically compete (even remotely) with their own business model — such as "casual carpooling" applications that encourage drivers to share rides. The open source community has a unique opportunity to get into the automotive application market in its infancy, and show the automobile industry the value of working with an open community by building the applications consumers really want, as well as applications carmakers have not even dreamed up.
Chaiken next outlined the make-up and status of the IVI systems available in the wild or scheduled to launch in the near future. They include Renault's Android-based R-Link, Ford's Android-based OpenXC, General Motors' MontaVista Linux-based Cadillac User Experience (CUE), Fiat/Chrysler's Blue&Me (running on Windows Embedded Automotive), and a slew of QNX-based solutions. The major platforms listed in the talk are in varying stages of availability, but some Linux-based MeeGo IVI units are already on the road in China. Intriguingly, she commented, there are also several prominent Japanese car makers who have either participated in Linux Foundation automotive computing events or are members of Linux IVI efforts like GENIVI, but who have not yet unveiled their IVI plans.
Among the current players, Chaiken said that Renault is making the
biggest effort to reach out and partner with the independent developer
community, offering an SDK, an "app store" and even an incubator program.
GM's CUE is by far the best-reviewed user interface, which makes it worth
exploring. It features haptic feedback from the screen, gesture support, and both in-dash and windshield-projected display options. It debuted on Cadillacs, but is expected to roll out to GM's other makes in 2012 (although perhaps under a new name). Chaiken also gave the CUE high marks for MontaVista's security design, which is based on the cgroups-and-Linux-containers approach that LWN covered in November 2011. GM's SDK is currently in preview release, and is expected to go public in March or April.
Ford's OpenXC is a bit of a puzzle in Chaiken's estimation, primarily
because it incorporates a "black box" hardware device rather than providing
direct access to vehicle sensors and raw data: interested developers must contact Ford with the make and model of their car, and the company will send them a sealed interface dongle programmed with vehicle-specific filters. In the long run, Chaiken said, that grates against the spirit of open access that most developers will expect — but it is early enough in the program that Ford's plans may change. OpenXC is in a limited developer pre-release.
Of the non-Linux IVI platforms, Chaiken suggested watching QNX for further developments. The OS used to be open source, but was taken closed again, and is currently owned by the troubled Research In Motion, parent company of the Blackberry mobile line. Considering RIM's troubles, it is plausible that the company will either sell or re-open QNX, which would be welcome news for Linux developers because of QNX's familiar, BSD-inspired design.
Separate from the carmakers' SDKs, there are also a number of
community-built automotive tools that prospective IVI developers will want
to investigate. The first is Gary Briggs' OBD GPS Logger, a data-logging
framework for car computing. OBD GPS Logger uses inexpensive USB or
Bluetooth dongles to connect to the industry standard OBD2 diagnostics port
found on all recent vehicles, and logs the codes that are transmitted. OBD2 is a read-only interface to the industry-standard Controller Area Network (CAN) bus, and although only a subset of CAN codes are standardized across vehicle manufacturers, the bus sees them all and most have been reverse-engineered.
OBD GPS Logger is designed to log information for later analysis, and
the project includes several options for plotting the data in three
dimensions, complete with geolocation support. A worthy companion for OBD
GPS Logger is NOBDy, a message-passing service that provides a generic interface to ODB events. The design is akin to GStreamer's source-and-sink model, Chaiken said, with a variety of event "providers" and "subscribers" implemented in separate modules. With NOBDy, developers can write event-driven applications that use TCP, D-Bus, or Bluetooth to communicate. NOBDy provides QML and HTML5 interfaces for rapid application development, and ships with plug-ins for common services like OpenStreetMap.
Automobile manufacturers are unlikely to push for OBD-aware applications, Chaiken said, but the technology offers many opportunities for developers to create compelling applications. On top of that, however, it is worth the open source community's time to get familiar with vehicle data-logging, because the possibility exists for it to be exploited in consumer-unfriendly ways — such as after-the-fact "surveillance" by carmakers or even law enforcement.
Also of note in the community tools arena is the Ubuntu IVI remix, an Ubuntu distribution designed for in-dash vehicle deployments. The remix is a stripped-down core OS with both Intel and ARM support (from Linaro) integrated, plus several automotive packages, including GENIVI-compliance libraries. Chaiken herself has packaged NOBDy for both Ubuntu and Debian.
Although the automotive application market is spinning up in 2012, Chaiken also outlined the challenges that independent software developers face when writing code for IVI systems. The first is that nobody really knows what constitutes the best UI conventions. So far, all carmakers' deployments have met with negative feedback — although perhaps they were simply assuming too much commonality with the mobile handset market. The GENIVI Alliance is a proponent of voice-driven interaction, a choice that Chaiken finds suspect. "When the navigation system asks for a destination, all the kids in the back seat can simply yell out 'Toys-R-Us'" she said, "how do you account for that?"
Fortunately, she continued, the fact that every UI available now is bad is actually "wonderful, because we have a chance. There aren't crap standards yet — but there will be in a few years." Chaiken is a fan of gesture-based user experiences (including the work showcased in GM's CUE) and believes that they may prove to be the winning paradigm for IVI, provided that developers make an effort to learn from the accessibility community. After all, arguably the most important feature of an in-dash IVI UI is that is not distract the driver, and the accessibility community already knows how to work with users with low-or-no visual contact.
If gestures do prove to be a winning formula, she continued, the
Microsoft Kinect represents a real danger to open source software. It is
becoming the de-facto standard for touchless gesture interaction —
because of its well-done implementation — but if open source does
not catch up on its own, the risk is that Microsoft could turn litigious
and shut down rival projects, or simply change the Kinect protocols
periodically just to break compatibility (a tactic the company employed
against Samba in the past, she said).
Several other challenges arise solely from the unique conditions of IVI computing. There are different pieces required, such as new buses like CAN, unusual sensors like tire-pressure-gauges, and different requirements for safety and security. Car "security" has evolved to its current state without any consideration for digital information residing in storage (including both vehicle data and user data), she noted. We typically leave our cars overnight — keys included — at repair shops; something we wouldn't dream of doing with our PCs.
Finally, a practical problem confronting the interested IVI developer is that in spite of the carmakers' interest in developing an IVI application ecosystem, information is still much harder to get from carmakers than from consumer electronics OEMs. That is likely to change with experience, but Chaiken related how her efforts to collect the information she presented on IVI SDKs sometimes involved comparatively "extreme measures" like writing and mailing physical letters, and how a developer outreach representative from LG was not even aware that the company made in-dash IVI products.
The solution is much the same formula as promoting open source in other arenas, Chaiken said — getting involved in open source IVI projects, downloading the SDKs, and asking the carmakers for more information. But asking car dealers about the IVI features in new models is worthwhile, too, as is buying a Linux-based car when shopping. There are a few groups of IVI hackers scattered around the highways and byways, including the Silicon Valley Automotive Open Source group. As IVI hits the showroom in 2012, hopefully it won't take the broader open source development community by surprise.
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Good news on that front too. Gentoo Linux will be renamed to
GNU/FDO/IBM/Oracle/Mozilla/KDE/Gnome/Linux as soon as we make sure we
haven't left anyone out.
-- Ciaran McCreesh
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The Debian release team has an update on new team members, the freeze,
release goals and more. "This is the first "Bits from the Release
Team" of 2012. In the year ahead, we plan to freeze (and perhaps even
release) Debian 7.0 "Wheezy", and we need your help to achieve this. Read
on to find out what we've been up to recently and what to expect in the
Full Story (comments: none)
openSUSE 11.3 is officially discontinued. There will be no more support by
SUSE. Click below for some security statistics.
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The next Ubuntu Developer Week takes place on IRC from January 31, 2012 to
February 2. It includes tutorials and hands-on sessions all about Ubuntu
development. "No matter if you are new to Ubuntu development or quite
experienced already, we are sure going to have an interesting session for
" The list of sessions has been posted here
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Newsletters and articles of interest
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Here's a lengthy
posting from Mark Shuttleworth
describing the "heads-up display"
concept that Ubuntu is pushing toward. "It’s smart, because it can
do things like fuzzy matching, and it can learn what you usually do so it
can prioritise the things you use often. It covers the focused app (because
that’s where you probably want to act) as well as system functionality; you
can change IM state, or go offline in Skype, all through the HUD, without
changing focus, because those apps all talk to the indicator system. When
you’ve been using it for a little while it seems like it’s reading your
mind, in a good way.
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The H covers
the first stable release of Cinnamon. "Version 1.2 of Cinnamon, the
Linux Mint project's fork of the GNOME Shell, has been released and the APIs and
desktop interface have been declared fully stable by Mint Founder Clement
Lefebvre. Created last
year to streamline the Mint developers' changes to the GNOME 3
environment, the Cinnamon fork brings familiar GNOME 2 design elements to
the GNOME 3 shell. Among the enhancements in the stable version is easier
customisation through a "Cinnamon Settings" tool which includes, for
example, the ability to set the date format for the calendar applet and
change panel launchers' icons.
" The Cinnamon download page
has instructions for installing Cinnamon on other distributions, including
Ubuntu 11.10, Fedora 16, openSUSE 12.1, Arch Linux and Gentoo.
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Bloathi is a community spin of Bodhi
aimed at providing a more fully featured "out-of-the-box"
experience. OStatic takes a
at Bloathi. "Bloathi retains the Enlightenment desktop
environment and comes with lots of themes and several hardware
profiles. These are setup upon reaching the desktop through a pop-up
configuration. The hard drive installer icon normally found on the desktop
doesn't show up in a lot of themes, so check in the file manager under
" LWN looked at Bodhi
the end of March 2011.
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Christopher Tozzi notes
of distributions offering the Unity desktop shell.
"It’s also telling that Unity has not been distributed outside of
Ubuntu’s own channel. An effort to port it to Fedora fizzled
out, and I couldn’t even find RPM packages of the software
anywhere. Meanwhile, the only up-to-date Launchpad PPA for
Unity currently supports Ubuntu 12.04 alone. In other words, even just
installing Unity on a distribution that’s not Ubuntu remains a tall order,
too difficult for most people to consider.
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