LAS VEGAS — Utilizing the SYNC connectivity system and AppLink application programming interface (API), Ford launched at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show an open developer program that enables software developers to directly interface with the vehicle and create apps that will enhance the driving experience.
“The Ford Developer Program marks a dramatic shift in how we will innovate new features and add value to our vehicles throughout the ownership period,” said Hau Thai-Tang, vice president of engineering, Ford global product development. “Opening the car to developers gives consumers a direct voice and hand in the creation of apps that can help our products remain relevant, up to date and valuable to our customers.”
According to a recent Nielsen survey, more than half of all American mobile subscribers now use smartphones of some kind and two-thirds of newly activated phones can run apps. Globally, there are now more than 1 billion smartphone users, a population that is expected to double by 2015. More than 55 billion apps have been downloaded from the leading digital markets, and American users have an average of 67 apps on their devices.
“When we first introduced SYNC in 2007, there was a need for an appropriate way to connect and control cellphones and digital music players in the car due to the massive consumer adoption trend,” Thai-Tang stated. “Offering voice control so drivers can keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road has proven to be popular with our customers. Now, with an even faster adoption rate of smartphones, there is a need for a renewed focus on voice control for the unique capabilities of these devices, especially for the use of apps.”
A recent Frost & Sullivan study shows one in five survey respondents acknowledge using apps while driving with absolutely no connection to the vehicle. While SYNC provides connectivity and voice control for phones and music players via Bluetooth or USB, AppLink provides a voice-activated interface, allowing drivers to control smartphone apps without the need to pick up their devices. First launched in 2010, SYNC AppLink provides offers voice control of services like Pandora personalized radio, Stitcher smart radio, NPR News, iHeartRadio digital radio and Scout personal navigation.
“The car presents an all-new opportunity for developers, especially the millennial market, and we’re looking forward to seeing the results,” said Thai-Tang. “Engaging innovators outside of the company is a key part of our strategy to be consumer-driven in all aspects of our business, helping us not only satisfy what’s going on today, but setting us up for innovative solutions to the challenges coming in the future.”
Millennials – those aged 18-33 – are particularly interested in customizing their experience with consumer products. Four in 10 respondents to a survey of millennials by Edelman 8095 want the opportunity to influence the products they use. Selecting and using apps is one of the easiest ways to personalize the functionality of both communications devices and vehicles they connect to for a unique user experience.
Ford has been in a beta test with a group of invited developers as they work out details of the software development kit (SDK), documentation and technical support systems. With more than three dozen AppLink-compatible apps publicly available on Apple iOS and Google Android, the SDK is now mature enough that Ford engineers are ready to let the vast ecosystem of developers try it out.
The Ford program is similar to those at technology companies including Apple, Google and Facebook. App developers who want to enable their creations for AppLink can now register at http://developer.ford.com to download the AppLink SDK. The SDK contains code libraries and documentation for the APIs that enable two-way communication between mobile apps and the vehicle including voice commands from the driver.
“Since launching AppLink, we’ve worked with developers ranging from a two-man startup at Roximity to large organizations like National Public Radio and Major League Baseball,” said Julius Marchwicki, global product manager for Ford SYNC AppLink. “The experience we gained from these projects as well as supporting hackathons at TechCrunch Disrupt and Facebook has helped us refine the development and testing process.”
In addition to the libraries and documentation, developers will have access to technical support directly from Ford engineers and online discussion forums where they can share lessons learned with other developers.
Developers who have a great idea for an app but need some help building it can turn to jacAPPS. Michigan-based jacAPPS will be the recommended mobile app development house for the Ford Developer Program. The company has been chosen to provide development and technical support to third-party developers wanting to create voice-activated smartphone apps for Ford SYNC AppLink.
“Our focus is to enhance the driving experience by minimizing the distractions caused by hand-held usage of smartphones while driving,” added Marchwicki. “We know consumers are using apps such as music and navigation while driving; therefore, by making AppLink available to developers, we can help ensure relevant apps can now be voice-controlled.”
Currently, the three main categories of AppLink-enabled apps include: News and Information, Music and Entertainment, Navigation and Location.
Once a developer has incorporated AppLink code into the app, it will be submitted for review by Ford engineers to ensure it works properly and is suitable for use in the vehicle. Once approved, Ford will then work with the developer to provide a distribution license, after which the app is submitted to the relevant app marketplace.
In addition to the launch of the Developer Program, Ford has worked with several new partners to offer SYNC AppLink-equipped vehicle owners all-new voice-activated versions of their apps.
To showcase the global nature of the Developer Program and launch of AppLink in Europe and Asia later this year, Ford has announced a collaboration with Sina to enable its Weibo mobile app with AppLink for use in Ford vehicles to provide news, weather, microblogging and location-based services. Sina is an online media company serving China and the global Chinese communities. The digital media network of SINA.com (portal), SINA.cn (mobile portal) and Weibo.com (social media) enables Internet users to access professional media and user-generated content in multimedia formats from the Web and mobile devices and share their interests with friends and acquaintances.
“Our Developer Program is open and available to anyone around the world,” said John Ellis, global technologist for Ford Connected Services. “A key advantage of our approach is the ability to quickly have relevant apps and services to support the launch of AppLink in Europe and Asia, by making it easy for local developers to tell us what the most popular and important apps are to suit the buyers in that region.”