In an unprecedented move for the auto industry, Ford is giving the system underpinning its Sync AppLink to any automaker who wants it, at no cost and with no restrictions on what they do with it. That would help automakers quickly and easily advance their infotainment systems, bring countless new developers into the automotive sector and provide consumers with more apps and options.
Ford’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic. It wants to dominate the emerging infotainment space by leveraging the success of AppLink and Sync, much like Google used Android in the smartphone sector.
The automotive app space is following a similar pattern. Every automaker features a different consumer-facing platform, so developers must work with a variety of APIs and SDKs. It’s annoying but doable for a massive outfit like Pandora, but damn near impossible for small developers. That’s where AppLink comes in. By offering AppLink to any automaker or Tier 1 supplier (the folks who build the hardware) and providing a universal API and SDK, Ford expands an app’s footprint across the industry and brings more developers into the Ford fold.
“It’s a bold move by Ford, which may lead to faster industry adoption of in-vehicle applications,” said Thilo Koslowski, an auto industry analyst at Gartner. “But it also underlines the challenge for automakers to attract application developers. No developer can afford to do custom work for every automaker.”
The fly in the ointment is the fact many automakers have invested great time and money developing their own app platforms. They want to control and maintain their own ecosystem, just like Google, Apple and Microsoft. A General Motors exec, requesting anonymity to speak frankly about Ford’s plan, said adopting AppLink would be immensely risky because of the resulting loss of control.
“Will we get the latest updates or will we have to wait until Ford is willing to share?” he said.
That is one of many questions competing automakers have. The other big issue is how AppLink will fit into current architectures. If it has access to core vehicle services such as vehicle diagnostics, it won’t gain any traction. Automakers don’t want a competitor’s nose that far into their business. And of course, there’s the issue of branding. No one but Ford wants Ford’s logo on a product.
Ford says AppLink can be platform-agnostic and insists that it has no interest in contributing branding, only the underlying architecture.
Developers have shown plenty of interest in AppLink. Well over 4,000 have registered for access, and that undoubtedly will climb as Ford’s pushes to make AppLink an industry standard. To that end, Ford is extending its API support, bringing multiple languages to market, and will even offer an emulator so coders can test apps without having to get an infotainment system – or an entire vehicle – from Ford.
And then there’s the aftermarket, which with the exception of Pioneer, has been slow to integrate apps into their head units. That could change with a more robust architecture, but Ford will wait until others get on board. That may be a conservative first step, but courting the aftermarket has the potential to get even more developers into the fray.
“Ford’s move could allow other automakers, [consumer electronics] companies and developers to stop reinventing the wheel,” says Koslowski. “But those automakers that want to achieve strong brand differentiation with mobile apps will likely continue with their own effort.”