Why Ford App Developer Program Is Breaking New Ground

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2013-11-17

Why Ford App Developer Program Is Breaking New Ground

SAN FRANCISCO—As new motor vehicles replace older ones every day on roads around the world, on-board computing infrastructures and mobile applications become more commonplace and thus more available and useful to users.

Whereas only a few years ago, vehicles may have had a single on-board computer to monitor the health of the engine, transmission, electrical and hydraulic components, there now may be dozens of processors compiling and analyzing scads of data streams and reporting not only to users but also to outside service providers. Promising new opportunities lie in wait for developers interested in the automotive software sector.

John Ellis, a Ford global technologist who organized the corporation's software development program and community, heads up what amounts to the most advanced development community in the industry—the Ford Developer Program. eWEEK caught up with Ellis at the recent sixth annual Open Mobile Summit at the Parc 55 Wyndham Hotel here.

Program Available to All Coders

The Ford Developer Program makes the Microsoft Sync platform available to all coders who want to take a shot at building a new mobile application. Developers also can use this program for other vehicle manufacturers. Projects can include anything from designing a new button for a touch-control dashboard app to a completely new application for, say, searching for an open parking space in a crowded downtown area.

Registrants use the Sync connectivity system and Ford's own application programming interface, or API. Developers directly interface with the vehicle to create their applications. Ford provides testing and verification technical support from its in-house engineers free of charge.

Ford also has its own software development kit (SDK), which is basically Sync in a box. It includes a mock-up of a dashboard console developers can use to test their apps. The ultimate goal is to design and build more and better apps for Sync and the Ford fleet.

"We launched the software development program Jan. 7, 2013, at 4 p.m. Pacific Time at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show]. This was a big deal because it was the first automotive development program [to get organized]," Ellis told eWEEK. "Also it was notable that at the launch at CES, our executives spoke for an hour about it, and not once did they say the word 'car.' It was all about the software. This was in clear recognition of the growing importance of the role of software [in the automotive industry]."

Software Getting More Pervasive

Ellis offered another example of the expanding importance of software—not only in ground transportation, but in all its forms: "When the [NASA] Space Shuttle launched a number of years ago, it had 500,000 lines of code. Our 2012 Taurus has 50 million-plus lines of code. In 2020, we're estimating that it'll be over 100 million lines of code."

The impact of automotive software can no longer be ignored, Ellis said, and when done right, "offers phenomenal service and opportunity for us to differentiate the vehicles at levels and a pace we've never seen before."

Ellis, who formerly worked at Motorola, said that the Ford Developer Program now has more than 6,000 registered developers.

"It's a global program, there are no restrictions—you can be anywhere in the world, we don't care," Ellis said. "Most of those in the program are like me in that they've been working in other mobile areas before. We're trying to raise awareness through the traditional means: We speak at events, we do outreach through the social networks, we do 'hacks' [hackathons], we have mailing lists, and so on. We're following the paradigm of developer.google.com."

Why Ford App Developer Program Is Breaking New Ground

Benefits for registrants to the program include access to the AppLink SDK and developer guides; developer community forums, blogs and news; development and testing support; global distribution opportunities; and marketing capabilities, including the worldwide Ford App Catalog.

Ford contributes its open-source code to—but is not a member of—the Genivi Alliance, a nonprofit industry group committed to driving the broad adoption of an In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) open-source development platform.

IVI is a rapidly growing field that covers entertainment and information features and functionality available in automobiles. IVI covers many types of vehicle infotainment applications, including music, news and multimedia, navigation and location services, telephony, Internet services and more.

Processes Getting Increasingly Complex

Automobile manufacturers and their suppliers must develop, test, deploy and support IVI products and services across multiple automobile models and generations. This process is increasingly complex and expensive as the rate of innovation and number of applications rapidly expands. Genivi is in the process of developing a reusable, open-source IVI platform.

Genivi's objective is to build an active open-source IVI community by:

—delivering a reusable, open-source platform consisting of Linux-based core services, middleware, and open application layer interfaces;

—engaging developers to deliver compliant applications; and

—sponsoring technical, marketing and compliance programs.

Ford launched voice-controlled Sync in 2007, and "imitation followed; a lot of people started doing the voice thing," Ellis said. "In 2010, we introduced AppLink at CES, and in 2011 at CES, we introduced Pandora [an on-demand music-streaming service provider] as the first AppLink-enabled app. The app is integrated into the vehicle via a suite of APIs that we publish to expose vehicle buttons outwards, such as radio dial, radio buttons, etc."

Why Ford Started a Dev Community

Ford came to realize that it almost had a moral imperative to put together a development community when it started calling itself a software company about five years ago, Ellis said.

"We needed to fix that fragmentation. We turned around and open-sourced AppLink, and announced it April 19 at Mobile World Congress," Ellis said. "IVI is where the code is being built, the mobile proxy and the head unit. The Ford program is where we take that and make it real for Ford."

For example, if you think back to early Android days, "Samsung had a developer program, Motorola had a developer program—they were working on getting Android onto their devices," Ellis said.

"That's similar to here: We're working on getting that software onto our cars with your devices. We want it to be that you take your phone to Ford, and it works. Take it to GM, and it works. BWM, and it works. We want it to work everywhere, but our motto to developers is we want Ford to be first."

In summary, the Ford Developer Program enables software programmers to work on anything they like, and make it able to run anywhere—but they need to make it for Ford first, Ellis said.

"If you're a developer and you want to make cool things, this is the way to do it," Ellis said.


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