This week, Indian ride-hailing service Ola announced the launch of "Ola Play," an in-car entertainment platform that will not only spare riders the pain of another driver's poor taste in music, but offer many options for diversion via their smartphones and custom-built interactive devices mounted in the vehicles.

In the announcement, Ola revealed their partnership with Qualcomm to build hardware for the in-car device, Indian automaker Mahindra & Mahindra will integrate the new platform into their vehicles that drive for Ola, and a strong slate of partners for the software and content, including Apple, Sony, and Fynd. CEO and co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal also shared that more partnerships are currently in the works.

This move rings similar to Uber's partnerships with Spotify and Pandora that empowered riders to control the tunes for the ride, but Ola's move strikes for something much larger.

Ola Who?

Over the past few years, Ola has risen as a major player in the Asian ride-hailing industry and the dominant operator in the Indian market, but does not stand on solid ground. Since Uber is offloading its Chinese operations for a 20% stake in Didi Fuxing, it'll be diverting its efforts to the next largest market for rides, which is certainly India. Already, Uber is rolling out features designed for Indian riders, such as the ability to book a car without using the app.

On top of the renewed competition, relations will be complicated with Uber holding stake in one of Ola's largest investors. Thus far, Ola has raised more than $1 billion from investors including Tiger Global, Sequoia Capital, SoftBank, and Didi, so it's unclear how the finer parts of the competition will play out.

Ola Play was piloted in some of the larger markets, including Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi, but Aggarwal plots a trajectory to deploy the system to more than 50,000 cars by March of next year. Originally, the platform was targeted primarily at business travelers, but the Ola leadership is planning to widen their scope with the expansion.

In its current iteration, Ola Play stands to push the company higher and higher on top of the dogpile. The decision to invest in this initiative could not have come out of thin air; clearly the strategy was validated by market research. Indian commuters will likely increasingly choose Ola over Uber, given the significant bump in ride quality it'll offer.

If Ola Builds It, Developers Will Come

As the platform draws more app developers and Ola collects usable data on how riders interact with the device, the potential for monetization is huge. Ola could essentially create an entire app store of their own, controlling transactions and taking a 30% cut just as Apple does with the iPhone.

The huge ridership already offers powerful network effects to draw in more developers, so Ola would be foolish to not pursue a full-blown market for apps.

One version of the Ola Play experience could function like this: riders purchase apps from their phone or in-car and their custom interface is pre-loaded into the car while the rider waits for the car to arrive. It's unclear if India's telecommunications infrastructure could support such frequent and likely data-heavy downloads, but that would be an incredible value-add for riders over what Uber currently offers.

As I've previously written, this kind of platform is the future for autonomous vehicles. Just as with the smartphone wars, users won't care significantly about the hardware - they'll merely want a stellar experience.

The fact that Olay Play syncs and offers control via riders' smartphones is only the beginning. Eventually, the autonomous vehicle app store can offer as much of a paradigm shift in the auto industry as Apple and Google brought to cell phones.

While it's unknown whether Ola has plans for self-driving, it's partners for the platform certainly do. Apple can reap reams of user data through how riders use Apple Music and their iPhones in the car, which will assist them in their plans for an iCar.

Even though the data will almost entirely be exclusive to Indian riders, the data will capture so many use cases that Apple will have serious strategic insights for the future of Project Titan.

Ola Leads the Pack

The launch of Ola Play should send chills down the spines of auto execs across the world. This new platform is paving the way for the future of the in-car experience and none of the big movers on autonomous have even made mention of this, save for the hints swirling around Apple's initiatives.

Ola's rollout is streets ahead of the other companies, such that they'll be playing catch-up to Ola if they don't launch some sort of pilot program soon. Tesla, for instance, already has semi-autonomous vehicles in consumer hands, so they could easily roll a development platform to market with their established customer base.

On the other hand, Ola may be the winner in India, but it is essentially trapped. Uber has been encircling the region by launching in the bulk of South Asia, most recently in Bangladesh. This leaves the last big market for ride-hailing in Africa.

Moving forward, Ola could make a premium target for acquisition or partnership in order to capitalize on the troves of user data it'll be collecting once Ola Play launches. Automakers and tech giants alike should be taking note of Ola's platform as it develops.

Published on: Nov 23, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.