Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Automakers Open Their In-Car Platforms: First Up, Ford, and Soon, GM

SYNC 4_GlympseCars are getting smarter and more connected, but there still seems to be a small variety of app icons sitting on the dash — usually Pandora radio, in-car navigation and not much more.

But 2013 looks to be the year automakers move beyond a few pre-approved partnership-driven test apps and into the great unknown.

Today, Ford is announcing its developer program, which will allow app developers to connect their Android and iPhone apps to Ford’s SYNC voice-activated interface.

But don’t expect to be playing Angry Birds on your dashboard as you’re driving down the freeway. The so-called “open platform” for an auto interface will have a high bar for approval of new apps.

“It’s as open as we feel comfortable to make it. Developers can be as creative as they want, but we do reserve the right to be selective under safety concerns,” said John Ellis, Ford’s global technologist for connected services and solutions.

As of today, developers can register to download Ford’s AppLink SDK. Then they can submit a Ford-compatible app for review “to ensure it works properly and is suitable for use in the vehicle.”

There already seems to be significant latent interest in developing for the Ford platform. In the lead-up to this launch, Ford collected 4,000 developer sign-ups on its website.

But Ford isn’t the only automaker trying to attract developer interest for its increasingly open platform. General Motors, which is also gearing up for a big launch at CES later this week, held a hackathon this weekend where about 20 projects were developed for the GM platform.

While the details of GM’s full announcement aren’t out yet, the hackathon projects included an app that allows users to remotely update in-car navigation with new destinations — the idea is to extend a “honey-do” list while your partner is already out doing errands — and another called “meet me in the middle” that suggests restaurants and cafes halfway between two GM drivers’ locations.

Ford was the first major auto company to jump on the connected-car bandwagon; the AppLink program dates back to 2010. At first it only included a few apps — Pandora (of course!), Stitcher and a couple more.

That small library has grown over time, and today at CES, Ford partners are launching quite a few more apps: In social media, Sina; in news, Wall Street Journal radio (where, full disclosure, AllThingsD reporters are sometimes featured), USA Today and Kaliki; in music and entertainment, Amazon, Aha Radio, Rhapsody and Greater Media; and in navigation and location, Glympse and BeCouply (a bit of an oddball, in that it provides date ideas on the go). Some of these apps will soon be live in Europe and Asia as well.

The next big step is for carmakers to provide app developers with vehicle data. That will allow for apps to be built around interesting and car-specific topics like fuel efficiency and ride sharing.

Vehicle data is “very near on our roadmap,” according to Julius Marchwicki, Ford’s SYNC AppLink program manager. GM seems to be further along on that front, with vehicle data mentioned in a developer website that’s already live.

The other big question is how integrated automakers want to be with existing platforms, and how much they require developers to build on top of car systems — which unfortunately often seem to be a takeoff of the interfaces we get on our smartphones and tablets, only with more pixelation and awkward hierarchical menus.

There are a range of perspectives on that issue — for instance, Kia and Hyundai said last week they will add Google Maps into their navigation systems.

Ford’s strategy is to have developers incorporate its voice-activation and vehicle interfaces into their apps for Android and iPhone apps, so they are distributed through familiar marketplaces to drivers’ existing cellphones.

But there are some hiccups with that strategy — for example, on the iPhone, Ford cannot open a new application; the app must already be open for the car system to engage with it.

The GM developer portal, meanwhile, indicates that the company is choosing more of an HTML5 open Web app strategy, though we’ll hear more about that soon.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald