Ford and six students team up to open SYNC API app development

Students and Instructors Review SYNC System

If you’ve been following Ford’s projects that were revealed at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, it is pretty clear that the Dearborn automaker is trying to bring smartphone-like technology to its vehicles. One of the many features that will be available to SYNC users in the future will be the ability to download SYNC-enabled versions of existing mobile apps along with new apps. The move also opens the doors for developers to introduce automotive related apps for the SYNC system.

Ford initially turned to six students from the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus to help it convert 100,000 active apps from the iPhone App Store down to those that would be relevant for use in vehicles. But when it came time to modify them to work with SYNC using vehicle buttons, displays and voice-commands, legal restrictions put up a road block to their progress.

Eventually, the students decided to scrap the initial plan to modify an existing app, and instead collaborate to create their own from scratch. To gain access to the SYNC API in development, the students were required to sign a SYNC Developers” License, which made them the only six licensed SYNC developers in the world. With the help of Ford developers, who had already been working on an API known as the “SYNCLink,” the students are now on track to help Ford offer an open API to trusted app developers around the world.

Hit the jump for the press release.

Press Release:

SIX STUDENTS, THREE MONTHS, 100,000 APPS: FORD EMBRACES OPEN INNOVATION IN SYNC API DEVELOPMENT

* While developing a SYNC® application programming interface (API), Ford enlisted the help of students from the University of Michigan-Dearborn to identify automotive-relevant mobile apps and beta test the first set of SYNC APIs
* Six students were granted use of Ford”s Developers” License, becoming the world”s first SYNC mobile app developers
* Open API facilitates development of SYNC-enabled versions of existing mobile apps plus introduces new pathway for developers in creation of unique automotive apps
* Beta testing and further development expected to lead to developer community release next year

DEARBORN, Mich. ““ When Ford Motor Company began exploring the development of an application programming interface for its popular SYNC® voice-activated in-car communications system, the company headed for the same place millions of SYNC users visit every day: the iPhone App Store.

With more than 100,000 applications created in just two years, mostly by individual programmers within the open source community, the spirit of “open innovation” has made the App Store an unprecedented success. Ford realized the open community model was also what the company needed to embrace to take SYNC to the next level.

“When we started planning for mobile app functionality on SYNC, we knew we had to think and act with the “˜start-up” mentality,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, technical leader, Ford research and advanced engineering. “The explosive growth in apps comes from community-created development, software geeks chatting about code on social media sites, open collaboration. That”s the genesis of app innovation, and that”s the spirit we wanted to capture for SYNC.”

Back to school
To gain outside perspective on the app marketplace, Ford turned to the nearby University of Michigan-Dearborn campus. There the company enlisted the help of six computer science students, working with their professors to devise an extracurricular project that would net the young programmers invaluable real-world experience.

The initial task: winnowing the roughly 100,000 active App Store apps down to those that would be relevant for in-car use. The young developers would then be asked to modify the software to work with SYNC, using the vehicle buttons, displays and voice prompts to control the mobile app. And they had three months during which to work.

To gain access to the SYNC API in development, the students were required to sign the first SYNC Developers” License, in effect making them the only six licensed SYNC developers in the world. Not only were the agreements drafted in a remarkably short time, but they marked an unprecedented release of proprietary technology by an automaker into the open source community.

“Basically, Ford knew that to provide the most value for its SYNC users and customers, the company had to let go of the reins a little bit,” explains Prasad. “If you give the open source community the opportunity, they”ll almost always do the right thing. For us to do the right thing, we had to trust this open development model in a way that”s not easy for a large company to do.”

Research, rewriting and restarting
Once the students had narrowed down the available apps to those useful to drivers, the next hurdle was gaining access to the source code behind the apps. Legal restrictions, extensive developer agreements and the short timeline soon forced a reality check: None of the readily available open-source software was applicable to the in-vehicle scenario. So the students decided to scrap the initial plan to modify an existing app, and instead collaborate on their own applications for SYNC ““ built from scratch.

Ford developers had already been working on an API, internally referred to as “SYNCLink,” allowing connectivity between mobile device applications and the vehicle interface. This API permitted access to the automotive interface ““ buttons, voice prompts and vehicle displays ““ that would be needed to make the software work.

The students sorted through more than 100 different concepts with the Ford API team, finally narrowing their focus to two areas; audio infotainment (internet music, news and talk show streaming sites) and navigation. The resulting apps included a mash-up of infotainment features called RadioSYNC that lets users “tweet” a location or a music track currently being played, and a navigation application called FollowMe that allows two or more friends to follow the leader to a location.

“These students also took the initiative to research automotive safety standards through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation,” said Prasad. “Completely on their own, they recognized their apps needed to consider the unique requirements of the in-car telematics environment.”

Next steps
The work done through Ford”s University of Michigan-Dearborn collaboration has helped advance Ford”s SYNC API strategy, progressing toward a planned 2010 release of the full open API first to trusted developer partners.

By working initially with trusted partners, Ford will be able to ensure any SYNC-enabled apps conform to vehicle telematics standards for safety and security. At the same time, an open API strategy will help add the creativity and excitement present in the open development arena.

“By embracing the open innovation community, we”re able to let creativity guide us,” said Prasad. “We can pursue the apps that lead to the most value for our customers and, since anything approved for SYNC will have to meet our telematics standards and design rules, we can help ensure safety and usability goals are met.”

Ford is joining millions of its customers in embracing the app marketplace. Studies show what was a nonexistent niche just three years ago is expected to blossom into a $4 billion industry by 2012. The App Store, run by Apple, is one of dozens of application marketplaces, and already boasts more than 100,000 mobile apps and over 2 billion downloads. Similar sites serving other mobile operating systems, like Android and BlackBerry, have experienced the same explosive growth. Ford and SYNC will answer the consumer demand by offering the only platform available for drivers to safely manage their mobile applications.

“Imagine being able to access your favorite Internet radio services in your vehicle, all by voice command,” said Doug VanDagens, Ford director of Connected Services. “Think about how excited young drivers will be when they can access their most recent social networking messages and have them read to them by our text-to-voice capability.

“Ford and SYNC are finding more ways to affordably connect users to the devices, services, content, data and now, the applications they want and use. The result will further blur the line between consumers” vehicles and their mobile devices as Ford moves toward its goal of seamless in-vehicle communications integration