Apple's CarPlay runs on QNX, but that doesn’t mean BlackBerry’s in the clear

CarPlay in-dash screen

On Monday, I posted about Apple’s unveiling of CarPlay, its new vehicle infotainment system that turns a car’s dashboard into an extension for your iPhone.

Some readers on Twitter pointed out that contrary to our Blackberry-heavy headline, CarPlay actually runs on top of the QNX CAR platform, which is owned by—you guessed it—Blackberry.

That news was first broken by Lucas Atkins at N4BB. Here’s the statement he obtained from QNX’s Paul Leroux:

“Connectivity to smartphones and other mobile devices is a key strength of QNX Software Systems’ platform for car infotainment systems, and many automakers and tier one automotive suppliers use our platform to implement smartphone/head-unit integration in their vehicles. We have a long-standing partnership with Apple to ensure high-quality connectivity with their devices, and this partnership extends to support for Apple CarPlay.”

What’s unclear from this statement is whether or not CarPlay will run exclusively on QNX or if it could operate on other systems as well, such as Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Automotive OS or JVC’s Mirrorlink.

So for the moment it is indeed fair to say that CarPlay isn’t in direct competition with QNX, which quietly dominates the software-for-cars market. As of last year, Blackberry was estimating that around 30 million cars on the road used QNX, with 11 million of them sold just in 2012. That number is certainly much higher today. In addition, rumours are floating about that Ford is planning on ditching its partnership with Microsoft for its Sync system and changing over to the superior QNX.

None of this, however, means that BlackBerry is free and clear. This new threat comes from exactly the same players, and in exactly the same form, as it did in the smartphone category. Apple and Google are ecosystem-building technology companies with massive installed user bases invading one of the last spaces on which BlackBerry has a firm grip. For now, CarPlay runs on top of other operating systems, but Apple is famously obsessive about controlling the user experience. It’s not a given that it will continue to be so accommodating with CarPlay in the future.

The larger danger to QNX comes from Google. The company’s Open Automotive Alliance launched in January intends to do for cars what Android did for phones by running an Android-like platform directly onto a vehicle’s dashboard. Members of the alliance are “committed to collaborating around a common platform to make this vision a reality.” That vision doesn’t include QNX.

QNX still has two major strengths. The first is security. Around 90% of all viruses that target mobile phones focus on Android, and that is an opportunity—especially given that the stakes for malfunctioning software are higher in cars than on smartphones. Another advantage is reluctance on the part of automakers to give up control to outside tech companies. Google feeds off of data, and if it starts tracking where, how fast and for how long people are driving, the inevitable backlash could hurt car manufacturers that are seen as selling out their customers.

As BlackBerry painfully learned, however, neither stronger security nor a more principled stand on data privacy were enough to prevail in the smartphone wars. Today BlackBerry is indisputably a major, relevant player when it comes to in-car software. But back in 2007—when Google launched the Open Handset Alliance and the iPhone was released—Research in Motion was, for a brief period, the most valuable company in Canada. It’s hard not to wonder if history will repeat itself.