Carmaker could increase entertainment offerings

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(Above: Ford aims to make the technology that runs apps on screens in its vehicles available to outside developers, boosting drivers’ choice.)

Ford Motor Co. is ready to fill the dashboard screens inside its vehicles with more apps, making the technology that runs them available to outside developers.

As in-car entertainment screens increasingly influence vehicle purchases, the Detroit automaker will let app-makers create software designed for Ford’s AppLink system — which uses smartphones to connect apps to its Sync-branded car and truck screens. Aha Radio, Amazon Cloud Player, BeCouply, Glimpse, Rhapsody, radio station operator Great Media, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal are among the first new partners announced Monday at CES.

Ford also plans to take its work with developers global, partnering with China’s SINA, a news service with 360 million registered users.

Ford sees the move as a way to keep buyers interested in its vehicles by letting consumers determine which apps they want featured on screen. But it’s also expected to significantly boost the profile of the entertainment-based apps biz as companies look for more platforms to reach mobile users. Other carmakers like General Motors have also embraced similar open-source strategies for their own systems and are showing them off at CES this week.

In order to do that, however, companies like Ford need developers to make their apps driver-friendly and teach them what tends to distract drivers.

“The key focus is to help developers understand what makes driving more safe while using a vehicle and your phone,” said John Ellis, Ford’s global technologist for connected services and solutions.

Ford’s AppLink system, which connects to its Sync infotainment system, has been in beta mode since it launched in 2010. It went live in 2011 with Pandora, Sticher and TuneIn, while Major League Baseball joined the service last year.

“This is an extension of the work we’ve been doing with AppLink” over the past two years, Ellis said. “We are now comfortable that we can do things in a broader way and still make sure it’s safe for the consumer. We’re not trying to dictate what you can or can’t do. We want developers to come to us with that they think is possible.”

Ford has a strict set of guidelines that forbid apps from playing video while driving or feature scrolling text or require heavy reading. Games also aren’t allowed. However, Ford’s engineers say it’s only a matter of time before Netflix or Hulu develop a version of their streaming services that send video to mobile devices paired with vehicles.

As of now, however, “video is a hard stop for us,” according to Douglas VanDagens, global director for Ford’s Connected Services Solutions Organization.

“The key for Ford is safety,” he said. “Keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel. At the end of the day, the automobile manufacturer has an obligation to make sure that the driving experience is the safest possible.”

Because of that, Ford is promoting use of Sync’s voice recognition features and controls. While the apps add the software to the car’s screen through the smartphone, the handheld devices can’t be accessed while driving.

“If you want to pick up the smartphone, it’s locked while you drive,” said Julius Marchwicki, Ford Sync AppLink program manager, pushing users to embrace Sync’s text-to-speech and voice control features.

Pandora, for example, can now be controlled by voice because of its work with Ford, whereas it couldn’t when it launched in 2011.

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