QNX Software, the system Research In Motion will use to power its PlayBook tablet and future BlackBerry smartphones, may outshine its parent this week as it touts vehicles with the productivity of an office.
QNX is pursuing a long-standing passion for cars even as it draws attention over whether its presence under the PlayBook's hood improves RIM's chances versus Apple's iPad and a slew of contenders vying for attention at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
It is making a play for the connected car -- and a particularly high-end car at that -- offering email direct to the in-dash display of the 2011 Z4 Roadster from BMW.
For safety, you cannot cleanse your inbox by yourself as you drive; instead the system reads them to you. When stationary, more functions are allowed.
"The content of the electronics in vehicles are growing at such an exponential rate," said Andrew Poliak, head of business development for automotive applications at QNX, which RIM bought from Harman International. "The quantity of software we are putting in the car is increasing dramatically."
QNX, whose software underpins systems in more than 200 vehicle models from the likes of Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai, is eager to push up the food chain from a pure operating system provider.
"We are providing more of those upper layers of the front-end, using Flash or HTML5," and offering a media player, Poliak said, stressing that carmakers still had plenty of room to set themselves apart.
BMW, which has a long history of working with QNX, will be demonstrating the upgrade to its in-car system at the desert gizmo show.
In the more affordable price range, Toyota unveiled its QNX-powered Entune system, which links a car-owner's mobile phone to their dashboard display.
Automakers, recovering from a slump, are eager to cram the latest consumer gadgetry into their vehicles to lure drivers addicted to Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates or in need of a map or a review and directions to nearby restaurants.
RIM bought QNX in a deal completed in April. Almost a year later it is about to step into a raging battle for smartphone and tablet operating system supremacy.
To one side sits Apple's iOS on the iPhone and iPad, a sleek interface aided by the iTunes platform for buying, renting and organising media files.
On the other sits Google's Android system, offered free to device makers, many of whom jumped eagerly into its arms.
QNX's lineage, which RIM's boasts is a strength, causes some concern for analyst Shaw Wu at Kaufman Bros, who has engaged in a dual with RIM in the last week over his charge the PlayBook battery is sub-par.
"From my understanding they are furiously working on fixing these problems," Wu said. "It's not going to be easy because they are using an OS that wasn't designed for mobile."
While loathe to comment directly on the concerns on the PlayBook's battery life, Poliak said QNX's strength was an ability to scale up or down depending on need.
"We have systems running full infotainment systems on very low-end ARM 9 processors," he said, noting that QNX took steps to ensure its systems running in electric cars such as GM's Chevrolet Volt did not drain precious resources that would limit the driving range of the vehicle.
"When you go to an electric vehicle, the dynamics change dramatically because every ounce of current drain is effectively range," he said.
Poliak said QNX expects to announce its presence in two more electric vehicle platforms from major suppliers in 2011.
(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)