- Dec 22, 2009
Ford goes open source, gets students to develop phone apps for Sync
As such, the number one access point to the internet is no longer a computer -- it's a mobile device.
Now we turn to Ford's Sync, a piece of software developed with Microsoft's help using the Seattle software giant's Microsoft Auto platform. While on the surface Sync has often appeared as little more than a fancy way to spin songs off your iPod, in reality it's a sophisticated piece of middleware that allows the vehicle to harness the power of a given mobile device. In other words, Sync allows whatever Ford/Lincoln/Mercury vehicle you're driving to act as a controller for your iPhone/Droid/Pre/whatever.
Handsfree access to your favorite songs and phone numbers is one thing, but what about all those fancy-pants apps you've spent so much time (and maybe money) downloading? Are they to be totally forgotten while you're in the car? Admittedly, you might be saying "of course," but Millenials think different. Besides, what if there were smart phone apps that actually enhanced the driving experience? With your hands on the wheels and eyes on the road, how would you access them? Here's a larger point, how does the internet work at 70 mph? Ford thinks it's got the answers to most if not all of these questions.
Ford aims to allow drivers to control their phones through their car's HMI. If you don't know, HMI stands for "human machine interface" and when you're talking Ford Sync that means voice control, steering wheel buttons as well as touch screen controls on cars so equipped -- an award winning combination, by the way. And while Facebook probably isn't the best thing to be concentrating on while driving, what if an app existed that allowed you to update your Facebook status with your location during a road trip? Or what if you wanted your phone to read someone's Twitter feed? It's totally doable, and using Sync you'll never have to touch your phone, let alone look away from the road.
The key is to get developers on board. As such, Ford must learn a couple of new tricks that are very un-OEM. To be successful in the software biz, a company must be able to "think fast, fail fast and recover fast," all skills that automakers simply don't have. So Ford has to reach out to people eager to develop apps for cars, and make the process fun for the developers. Long approval periods and heavy layers of corporate interference will just turn would-be Sync app writers off.
Sync was engineered with an open API, meaning that apps can be written for whatever phone you happen to own, be it Windows-based, Apple, Google, Palm or other. In fact, Ford wants to develop a community of Sync app developers who will develop a Sync marketplace. To prove its concept Ford worked with six computer science students from the University of Michigan to build two mobile phone-based Sync apps.
The students looked at 120 apps for the iPhone (they picked the iPhone not because of any preference other than ubiquity) and chose to build apps that focused on two key Millenial concerns: social networking and entertainment. As Ford explained, the trick is to make useful apps that can productively and safely be used at highway speeds. In case you're wondering, Ford's Sync app store will not be totally open like the Android Market. Rather, the Ford store will be moderated like Apple's. Meaning that Ford won't allow an app in their store that, say, uses your phone's built in accelerometer to record your Mustang GT's quarter-mile time and log it into a web-based database. We know because we asked. However, a location based database would probably fly, as long as you're on a race track.
The first app we saw demo'd was a social networking app called Follow Me. We've all been in the situation where we're following someone and they run a yellow light, leaving you stuck at a red and basically lost. Well, what if there was a way to turn two phones into a "leader" and a "follower," with the follower phone announcing turn-by-turn directions over the car's audio system? Well, that's exactly what Follow Me does. Let's say the leader phone is already at a party (college student speak for "house"). The driver of the follower car simply launches the Follow Me app, and is given directions to the leader phone's location. Nifty, no?
Here's the idea behind the next student written Sync app: you've got about 100 terrestrial radio stations, most of which are filled with garbage. Then you have approximately 250 satellite radio stations, which are better than regular radio but cost money and still offer relatively limited choices. Now, when it comes to internet radio, your choices are essentially limitless. Trouble is, your car doesn't get the internet. And even if your car is in fact a WiFi hotspot, how do you get the internet into your radio, let alone (safely) switch stations? Meet SyncCast, an app that let's you play whatever station you want via your phone. You can even use familiar Sync commands, such as "Play station Pandora."
We saw demos of each student built app and they appeared to work. Interestingly, the students had just three months to complete the projects. According to them, working with the Sync toolkit was easy. The hard part was learning the Apple-specific toolkit for the iPhone's API. According to Ford, these students are just the beginning of what will prove to be a large, healthy developer community and app store.
The idea is pretty smart. As phones get better and better and smarter and smarter, why not allow a vehicle to leverage that power in a positive way? For instance, the dang kids love texting. But texting plus driving is insanely dangerous as it is two eyes and two hands off the wheel. Sync has had canned texting messages (eg "Where R U?") pre-loaded since it came out and can also read incoming messages out loud. But why not an app that lets a driver text using his or her voice? After all, have you seen how sophisticated the Droid's speech recognition software is? All you'd have to do is get someone to build the app. Think of the Sync API then as Ford's electronic field of dreams.