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Ford, GM, open up to developers at CES 2013

Among car-oriented technology at CES 2013, the most important trend opens up the dashboard to app developers.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
3 min read

GM announced its new app framework at CES 2013, which will support third-party apps. GM

LAS VEGAS--Ford and GM both surprised the automotive and technology worlds by announcing developer programs for their in-car software platforms, essentially replicating the ecosystem of the smartphone on the dashboard. The two launched Web sites with nearly identical URLs, developer.ford.com and developer.gm.com, to support independent development of apps for their cars.

Ford already boasts about 20 apps integrated with its Sync AppLink system, with nine new apps announced at the show. GM is behind in the dashboard app game, but the open development program should give it a jumpstart.

The programs are designed to encourage developers to adapt existing apps or come up with completely new apps for use in the car. GM seemed particularly keen on having developers take advantage of some of the vehicle information it makes available through its app framework, such as fuel level and vehicle speed.

While Ford already had its Sync AppLink system, GM launched its own app framework at the show, a platform that will underlie its MyLink and IntelliLink branded systems.

Ford had already been working with developers to some degree, offering up APIs that let apps take advantage of Sync AppLink's advanced voice command features and touch-screen interface. GM is also letting developers at its APIs, so apps can make use of a vehicle's interface options.

Despite the open nature of development, both Ford and GM retain approval authority for apps, so they can ensure that the functions are safe to use in the car. Ford came out and said it would not permit apps for games or video in Sync AppLink.

Although we can expect a smaller number of apps for the car than for a device like the iPhone, that potential number grows very large when you consider that there are currently over 700,000 apps in the iTunes store. Cars in the near future seem likely to let drivers install apps for a variety of uses into the dashboard. Similar to using a smartphone, you might have your favorite apps to load up when you get a new car, then explore more options. A particularly useful app may even influence car buyers toward a model that supports it.

Reinventing the smartphone
It might seem silly to duplicate the app infrastructure currently found on smartphones, yet making apps native to the car offers a few advantages. First of all, smartphones were not made to be used while driving. Automakers are loath to fully integrate a smartphone interface into the dashboard because they would have no control over how it would be used, and so face liability if a driver got into an accident while playing a game, for example.

Second, the car's dashboard, even with an embedded touch screen, is designed for driving. Touch screens in the dashboard are typically much larger than those on smartphones, and automakers have full control over the interface design. Voice command systems can be designed to work with the car, and buttons mounted on the steering wheel let drivers operate technology features while keeping full control.

Finally, an in-car app system can take advantage of vehicle data not available to a smartphone. Trip apps could help drivers save fuel by calculating long-term fuel efficiency and coach in efficient driving techniques. Performance apps could be fun for track day enthusiasts, and even link to online competition ladders.

As only two automakers announced open app developer programs, it might seem premature to name it a trend. However, GM and Ford together sold almost 15 percent of the world's cars last year. GM was the top seller, over all other automakers, while Ford carved out a significant chunk for itself in sixth place. That sheer volume suggests other automakers will need to look at launching their own programs, if they want to remain competitive.

To head off complaints about developers having to build apps for a dozen different automotive platforms, Ford also took the extraordinary step of saying it would let other automakers use its Sync AppLink platform, free of charge.