Are autos the new smartphones at Mobile World Congress 2013?

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BARCELONA—My colleagues here at Mobile World Congress this week think this is a show about smartphones and tablets.

But the truth is more along these lines: MWC 2013 is turning out to be a car show, and cars are the new smartphones.

Audi’s 100-yard long ad that papers the windows on the way to Hall 8 of Fira Gran Via here might say it best: “The Audi A3 Sportback: The world’s biggest smartphone.”

Giant Audi ad at Mobile World Congress

Basically, everyone uses smartphones, everyone drives cars, and…everyone does both of those things at the same time (even though they shouldn't).

So, naturally, mobile developers and automakers alike are interested in creating some sort of smartphone/car union that doesn’t get people killed.

Ford booth in among the mobile giants

This is the second year that the all-American automaker has pulled out all the stops at MWC with its bathed-in-blue booth in Hall 3, alongside such mobile tech giants as Samsung, Huawei, and Intel.

Ford’s big announcement—at least, the one that’s relevant to Americans—is that it’s partnering with Spotify to bring voice-controlled on-demand music to its SYNC AppLink-connected vehicles.

Ford’s SYNC AppLink is just one of many voice-controlled in-vehicle infotainment systems that can link up with smartphone apps. AppLink doesn’t actually require you to download any apps on your car—instead, it links up with apps you’ve downloaded on your smartphone, and lets you control them through your car.

The way that Ford (and other car companies) sees it, you’re going to use those apps in your car anyway, whether they like it or not. So they might as well make it sort of safe for you to do, by giving you the ability to control those apps using your voice.

Spotify’s new app is just a smartphone download, but Ford users will be able to sync that up to their AppLink system and start talking to their phone—through their car—very soon.

GM going 4G, all the way

General Motors wowed us this week with an ambitious plan to put 4G LTE wireless broadband connections in its 2015 fleet of Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, and GMCs.

The automaker has partnered up with AT&T (breaking a long-standing relationship with Verizon Wireless), and hopes to get these 4G 'mobile hotspots' on the road by 2014.

This announcement shows that cars will soon be just as connected as your other mobile devices. Of course, with speedy cellular data connections comes a price—neither GM nor AT&T has said yet what the monthly cost will be for a 4G LTE vehicle data plan, but rest assured…there will definitely be a monthly cost.

GM Cadillac equipped with 4G LTE wireless

Unfortunately, I don’t think car companies are going to start subsidizing vehicles if you sign a two-year contract. However, built-in 4G LTE is still pretty awesome to think about, even with the extra monthly fee.

GM can’t tell us what types of amazing things your connected car will be able to do, but the company has hinted at some type of streaming entertainment (whether it’s backseat streaming video or streaming Internet radio, I don’t know), as well as a Wi-Fi hotspot feature for tablets and other devices.

The company did show off several 4G-connected cars at MWC’s Connected City, and we got to see the AT&T U-Verse streaming on head-unit touchscreens. However, GM reps tell me that streaming video on the head unit (at least while the car is in motion) will be a definite no.

MirrorLink courts developers

MWC isn’t all flashy booths and people in mustachio’d Android costumes. In the “theatre district” of Fira Gran Via, companies hold conferences and panels for people who are interested in learning about various technologies.

This year, the Car Connectivity Consortium held its first-ever MirrorLink Developer’s Conference. The CCC is an organization (which includes most of the world’s leading automakers and mobile communications companies) dedicated to figuring out the issue of smartphone-car connectivity.

MirrorLink is the CCC’s non-proprietary technology that basically mirrors a smartphone screen on a car’s built-in head-unit screen.

MirrorLink technology mirrors your smartphone's screen on a screen built into an automobile.

Anyway, the CCC has decided that it’s ready to get mobile app developers on board. The DevCon lasted a full day and featured sessions for both app developers and automakers about the technology and how to develop (from both ends) the perfect MirrorLink-compatible app.

You may be wondering why we care about this back-end non-proprietary technology developer’s conference, and the answer is: we don’t.

However, MirrorLink is one of those things you’ll see popping up in cars (it’s in the Volvo V60, which we saw in the Connected City, for example), and it’s different from the regular ol’ “car interface.” MirrorLink brings cars one step closer to being smartphones—after all, it’s literally mirroring the smartphone screen on the car’s screen. It’s like your car is a giant PadFone Infinity, or something like that.

So, are cars really the new smartphones?

Today’s cars are packed with all kinds of technology, including built-in data connections. That’s right—many cars already have cellular connections, though they’re typically 2G connections and can only be used for basic, back-end features, such as enhanced navigation.

Even the techiest car on the block, the Tesla Model S, only has a 3G connection.

GM is really the company that’s leaping from “this is a car with a data connection” to “this is basically a giant, rolling smartphone that can travel up to 150mph.” Assuming the company’s not bluffing, a 4G LTE data connection will allow you to do everything your smartphone can do—probably even send text messages and make phone calls.

Thanks to infotainment systems like Ford’s SYNC AppLink, drivers can control smartphone apps with their voice. Thanks to technologies such as MirrorLink, drivers can use apps on their cars’ touchscreens without giving up the app experience.

And thanks to ambitious connection plans like GM’s 4G LTE announcement, drivers will soon be able to do everything they can do on a smartphone, and at smartphone speeds.

This story, "Are autos the new smartphones at Mobile World Congress 2013?" was originally published by TechHive.

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