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Planet of the apps: Detroit marks beginning of tech war

Published January 17, 2013

It’s official. The app war has begun in Detroit.

After working with selected developers for its revolutionary, voice-enabled, in-car app technology called SYNC AppLink over the past few years, Ford has announced it will open up its application programming interface (API) to independent developers.

The Ford Developer Program will provide third-party access to the infotainment platform, allowing them to develop new apps that can be accessed right from the dashboard through voice commands.

Ford may have been first out of the gate with the call for external collaboration, but GM followed shortly after with its own version of a program for its MyLink platform, effectively pitching itself against its Detroit rival in the race for added vroom with vehicle apps.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Ford showcased its existing suite of apps, which range from tabs that read you the daily headlines while you are driving to navigational aids that can give you “cool date ideas” based on your vehicle location.

GM bandied its entertainment apps, such as iHeartRadio and Slacker, as well as a weather app.

And Chrysler introduced various Internet radio apps for its infotainment platform, Uconnect.

But the offerings are still fairly limited for the auto makers, who hope to change that by courting independent developers.

The move to invite outsiders into car design may seem counterintuitive. But when it comes to connected infotainment, car makers can’t hold a candle to what the consumer electronics industry brings to the table. If auto makers attempt do everything on their own, they will be forever playing catch-up. Even Google and Apple have been reliant on the software community at large.

“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,” explains Hau Thai-Tang, vice-president of engineering at Ford.

Whether European and Japanese automakers will follow the lead remains to be seen but the Detroit stance bodes well for the homogenization of app development for cars.

The automotive community has so far been working in silos when it comes to connected technologies. Every automaker has been pursuing platforms and protocols of their own — a key challenge in an environment that needs uniform modes of communication to fully realize its potential.

“They are all inventing their own thing. Instead of building one time, they are building 15 times,” says Andy Gryc, automotive product marketing manager for Ottawa-based QNX Software Systems, which has worked closely with GM on its infotainment system.

Closer collaboration will necessitate the need for universal software tools, particularly those that help app-makers easily translate smartphone-based products to the vehicular environment. GM signalled its intention toward this approach by making its software development kit (SDK) available in HTML5, an emerging protocol that blurs the differences in building mobile and automotive apps.

App developers are surely raising their glasses to the GM and Ford announcements, but will consumers heed the call? Business and subscription models behind these apps are still a little foggy, but getting drivers to pay for products already available on their mobile devices could prove difficult.

There may be some niche apps — navigational ones might be the most attractive — that might make the grade initially but it might be a while before automakers can reap solid financial benefits.

However, Gryc believes there are bigger things at stake for automakers than simply the sound of cash registers.

“Thinking just in terms of monetizing apps may be a wrong approach. In-vehicle apps are likely to emerge as a key brand differentiator. They can help build loyalty and allow automakers to have a continuous conversation with their customers,” he says.

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