The state of the car computer: Forget horsepower, we want megahertz!

If I asked you “how many computing devices do you own?” your mind will probably first jump to your PCs and laptops at home, and then to your smartphones and tablets. The more tech savvy might include smartwatches, TVs, and video game systems. But there’s one computing device that not many people think about as a computing device: the car infotainment system.

Like everything else, infotainment systems are computers with processors, operating systems, and applications, but you won’t find much material out there that treats them as such. Microsoft, Apple, Google, Samsung, and others hold big press conferences about their new hardware and software, touting ever-larger spec sheets, new features, and universally known sub-brands like iPhone, Surface, and Galaxy.

But you’ll almost never see car companies announce how much RAM is in their new car infotainment systems, though; most won’t speak a word about specs or even say what software they’re running. Sure, the main purpose of a car is to drive it, so horsepower, safety, and comfort are top-of-mind. But after the steering wheel, pedals, and (for some drivers) the turn signal, the infotainment system is one of the most-used interfaces of a car. If it sucks, you’re probably going to be unhappy.

So today we’re going to treat car computers like every other kind of computer and see how car companies are adapting to the age of the smartphone. Consumers are demanding ever-more-complicated tech packages in their cars, and some members of the 100-year-old car industry are adapting to it better than others.

The state of the car computer.

Welcome to the infotainment Wild West

In the early days of the PC, there were lots of operating systems—DOS, Mac OS, OS/2, Windows, BeOS, AmigaOS, and others. Eventually, the platform matured, and things settled out to (mostly) a duopoly of OSes—Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s macOS. In the early days of smartphones, there were lots of operating systems—Palm OS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, BlackBerry OS, Brew, and others. Eventually, the platform matured, and things settled out to (mostly) a duopoly of OSes—Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. It is with this in mind that we look at the current state of the car computer, where we definitely seem to be in the “early” days.

Today, there is no shortage of car OSes, all of which are heavily customized by and exclusive to each car manufacturer. For general underlying operating systems, we’ve got Blackberry’s QNX, Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Automotive, plenty of custom Linux-based OSes, and plenty of custom Android Open Source Project (AOSP)-based OSes, which itself is Linux-based. Car companies usually build custom interfaces on top of these OSes and brand them as productions of the car company, with names like “Ford Sync” and “Audi MMI.”

Of the “big three” consumer operating system companies—Microsoft, Google, and Apple—only Microsoft currently competes in the automotive OS market. Apple and Google both have “projected” car interfaces—CarPlay and Android Auto, respectively. But these are merely run from a smartphone and are sent to the car display. They are not real operating systems and essentially run as apps on top of one of the previously named car OSes. There’s also the similar “MirrorLink” system, which—with a compatible car and phone—will send your entire phone display to the car screen.

Microsoft has had a car platform seemingly forever, starting with the (aftermarket) Windows CE 2.0-based “Auto PC” in 1998. Microsoft’s car platform (which, in typical Microsoft fashion, has changed names about five times over the years) had a serious foothold in the market with Ford Sync. But after Ford switched to Blackberry’s QNX, many wondered if Microsoft has a future in the infotainment market. The company recently signed a deal with Renault-Nissan, but it’s too early for any real products yet.