The App Developer’s Guide to Working with Ford Sync

1Executive Summary

Ford Motor announced Wednesday night at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas its first three partners for developing mobile apps that will be compatible with its in-vehicle communication system, Sync. This is a step toward realizing the potential for communication networks and IT to help pave the way for electric cars and next-generation transportation systems (see this Pro article on ideas for “mobility on demand”).

What if your car functioned more like a smartphone, with a web connection and an open platform on which developers could build applications to help drivers use fuel (and down the road, electricity) more efficiently? That’s part of the idea for truly connected cars in the era of Car 2.0 — and with Ford’s announcement this week we got a glimpse of how the concept will unfold in the real world. We spoke with Ford’s chief of connected services to get a better idea of some of the opportunities (and challenges) that lie ahead for app developers eyeing automotive platforms.

Working with the API
With its API, Ford is opening the possibility for drivers to interact with apps from certain partners on their cell phone using vehicle controls (voice commands or buttons on the steering wheel). As Doug VanDagens, director of connected services put it, Ford’s vehicles that are equipped with Sync (most of the lineup for 2010 and later) will gain “connectivity to the cloud through phones.”

When Ford accepts a developer as a “trusted partner,” it licenses a development kit with both software and hardware — so you don’t need to own or have access to the latest Ford models to get a sense of how your app will look and feel to drivers.

VanDagens said the first set of partners — Pandora, OpenBeak and Stitcher — required only about 10 days to enable their app for Sync in beta form, with 3-4 people working on them. Developers are dealing with the familiar software environment of the phone, said VanDagens. Ford is really offering “a series of open data channels to send commands over…You don’t have to deal with the complex vehicle environment.”

Ford has no plans at this point to charge for the API license, and it expects apps to be distributed through existing channels for mobile applications, such as iTunes. The automaker does not expect to take a cut of any revenue that app developers may garner through their compatibility with Ford vehicles. “The objective is to make Ford cars really cool” and boost vehicle sales, VanDagens said.

Hurdles & Limitations
Ford plans to roll out only 3-4 Sync-enabled apps from trusted partners per quarter over the next year — likely starting with apps related to horoscopes, stock listings and movie listings and possibly others with broad consumer appeal. “We won’t make it available for millions of [developers] out of the gate,” said VanDagens.

When it comes to dealing with bugs and any problems outside developers might have with the Sync platform, Ford has an IT and electric engineering team to help them “work out bugs and understand the API.” It sounds like a small team at this point, so if Ford does open up the API to a larger pool of developers, there could be a bottleneck for platform support. Just a handful of people at Ford handled these issues for the first three partners.

Ford will maintain control over how apps are presented in the vehicle, VanDagens said. For example, “no loud or sudden messages” will be allowed. Likewise, while VanDagens says “the capability exists” for developers to gain access at some point to vehicle data like mileage and share it with drivers’ social networks through a Sync-enabled app on their phone, don’t expect to blast Facebook with your personal best MPG too soon. (See “How to Build Better Apps for Electric Vehicles” for a rundown on what features and functions are likely to help an app gain traction among EV drivers.)

Future Opportunities
Once Ford is ready to make a move, however, developers can be approved as trusted partners very quickly. VanDagens said the automaker was in talks with OpenBeak for only about three weeks. With Pandora, VanDagens said the companies went back and forth for 4-5 months, mostly because Ford at that point was “getting the right people involved” and “preparing to make sure we had the API written correctly. We got a lot of feedback from them.”

The total market opportunity is significant. Ford expects mobile apps to be a $4 billion industry by 2012. And in 2010, even if Ford’s vehicle sales are consistent with 2009 (it expects an increase as the economy recovers), up to 1.5 million vehicles will hit the road in 2010 with the technology to link them with consumers behind the wheel.

However, as the platform grows, marketing could become a challenge. As long as Ford has only a small number of trusted partners providing Sync-enabled apps, Ford plans to list them on its Sync My Ride web site (where drivers currently manage things like vehicle diagnostics reports). If Ford ends up opening the platform to millions of developers (a move that’s still under consideration), then developers may face the all-to-familiar challenge of gaining visibility for their app.

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