• Dec 22nd 2009 at 3:30PM
  • 38
Before we get into the nitty and/or gritty of what Ford is up to with their pending Sync app store, we should share with you a few facts FoMoCo shared with us. In 2010 fully 28 percent of the driving population will be between the ages of 16 and 31. These folks, known as Millenials (though us altecachers still prefer "Generation Y") love their smart phones and social networks the way the Baby Boomers loved the Beatles and Generation X loved moping around and bad tribal tattoos.

As such, the number one access point to the internet is no longer a computer -- it's a mobile device.

Access to your favorite songs and phone numbers is one thing, but what about all those apps you've spent so much time downloading?
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.

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.
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?

The trick is to make useful apps that can productively and safely be used at highway speeds.
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.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      Is Ford absolutely sure that "Follow Me" shouldn't be called "Stalk Me"?
      • 5 Years Ago
      It's funny how hard these silly companies will try...and how much money they will waste trying to copy Apple...and in the end, STILL have a POS product.

      Ford will never learn...what baboon thought this was a good idea?
      • 5 Years Ago
      I thought Ford works with Microsoft. Why are the laptops that the students are using macs?
        • 5 Years Ago
        Even if they are real students and real Mac HARDWARE, Mac HARDWARE runs Windows perfectly fine, and natively.

        Some people buy MacBooks, put Windows on it, and never even have the Mac OS X on it or never boot up into Mac OS X.

        It's just an intel-based architecture, built to Apple specifications and design.

        Mac (some) ARE PCs.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Perhaps since they're working with the iPhone API?
        • 5 Years Ago
        Most computer science majors I know use macs these days. Because it's an Unix with a decent graphical user interface and lots of apps.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Because they're developing with the iPhone SDK
        • 5 Years Ago
        The exclusivity Ford had on the Microsoft Auto platform has expired.
        • 5 Years Ago
        This isn't necessarily open source, it's open platform, meaning if you write to the sync API it will work on any phone. The opposite would be the iPhone API which like all Apple products is closed and proprietary. I doubt you'd be locked into using a proprietary platform like a Mac to develop using the sync API. They're probably all using Macs because it's a marketing photo and marketing folks love their Macbooks.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Funny enough, I had a conversation recently with the COO of Toyota and the head of telematics at BMW about exactly this topic. Toyota's view is that the car should be an open platform, while BMW is terrified of the consequences.

      Oh, and open APIs is not equal to open source. When MSFT and Ford release the source to the platform so the platform itself can be hacked, then it will be open source. Until then, it is just not open source, not even from a licensing standpoint.

      Ironically, being open source is probably exactly what is needed, as this has a tendency to foster much broader communities.

      • 5 Years Ago
      This is excellent! I love sync.

      I would really like apps that trigger the voice recognition in android for google navigation, web search, and other Android Apps for voice and steering wheel control.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Bravo Ford.....you are running away from the pack.
      • 5 Years Ago
      SYNC + in-car wireless internet + Pandora = death of radio, satellite or terrestrial.

      Can't wait.
        • 5 Years Ago
        "SYNC + in-car wireless internet + Pandora = death of radio, satellite or terrestrial"

        No, I would wait before making that prediction. The government is going to come down hard with vehicle electronics regulation's because all the cell phone and texting laws that are being ignored by just about everyone.

        It's not a slam dunk all this technology is going to be allowed as freely as we like in cars.
      • 5 Years Ago
      SYNC is for ADHD morons who don't care about driving, and I hear it's full of bugs anyway.

      Of course Ford has to have gimmicks to make up for their crap cars. Still can't cure all that debt they're carrying, though!
        • 5 Years Ago
        Keep crowing about how Ford is "back", fanboi, I've been hearing this since the '70s. It wasn't true then and isn't true now.

        I remember as recently as the late '80s Ford fanbois were bragging as their Tempos rusted around them and the Civics are still on the road today.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Aww, that time of the month for Brian again...

        Bloated? Irritable? Gassy? Tired of hearing all the positive press surrounding Ford and watching their stock and market share continue to climb?
        • 5 Years Ago

        Suck it d-bag.

        They're going to be so far ahead of the competition on telematics its sick. Remember that SYNC is available on almost all Ford vehicles, not just the higher contented trim levels. You can't get anything like this on cars costing 10's of thousands more.

        So, once again, suck it.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Apple's terms for being in the iPod/iPhone accessory developer program do not allow you to have open source projects. So the idea of Ford getting students to develop iPhone controllers isn't real. You could make iPhone apps that control Sync though and open source those.

      This seems like a great way to get ideas and some cheap labor and PR.
      • 5 Years Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      I am still learning Sync on my new car, but it bothers me that I have to agree to a license agreement in order to use it. There is tons of software that is needed to run a car, like engine management, but I don't have to agree to a license agreement to use those.

      Ford needs to really make Sync open source, and remove the MS license restrictions and perhaps they will attract developers then.

      Oh...please remove "by Microsoft" from the Sync logo. Microsoft just doesn't command the respect that some other manufacturers that you might find in a car, like various high end stereo manufacturers.

      • 5 Years Ago
      Wondering the author of the post knows difference between Going open source and Opening up some API for developers

      Happens , Buzz words and marketing rules :-)

      Its good, specially sync is from Microsoft i expected this :-)
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