Earlier last year, Ford opened up AppLink – its proprietary protocol that allows smartphone applications talk to the vehicle in a standard manner – to any other manufacturer in the world, who wanted it. That was a major move towards creating an industry standard for connectivity, which is so deeply entrenched in our lives today. The company has since made major progress in different markets globally.
In his recent visit to India, we caught up with David Huang, Senior Manager, Technology and Business Development, Connected Services, Ford Asia Pacific, to understand the future of connected cars, and the developments related to AppLink, with special emphasis on the Indian market.
The open sourced AppLink platform was offered through the GENIVI Alliance, an in-vehicle entertainment standards group, as the Smart Device Link (SDL) application programming interface (API). It is essentially the same thing, Huang said talking of AppLink and SDL. "We want the apps to work for all vehicles, not just Ford." Towards this, the vision is to see developers use one software development kit (SDK), which once integrated, is able to run apps on all vehicles.
As the name suggests, AppLink essentially functions like a bridge between applications running on a smartphone and the system in the vehicle. This is a result of the ever growing gap between the consumers' need to stay connected, entertained and informed while on the move, as against what OEMs have been able to offer traditionally.
"With AppLink, we've actually broken away the entertainment system from the very systematic and organised automotive engineering process and have married that with the smartphone application ecosystem, which is more dynamic and which features much shorter development cycles," Huang explained.
The basic idea is simple – Ford wants to leverage the mobile phone industry, not re-invent or re-create it. Voice commands to the vehicle system have worked successfully for some time now on vehicles world over. With AppLink, one can give a voice command to the smartphone application, indicating a clear shift in convenience and functionality. It also supports buttons, wherein certain buttons can be mapped to application controls. "Additionally, to give user feedback, we enabled AppLink to use the vehicle screen to display information or to use the "text to speech" (TTS) engine of the vehicle to give audio feedback to the user," Huang said.
From a convenience standpoint, linking a smartphone to the on-board vehicle system gives one access to all the applications that one has in his or her smartphone. Attempts by OEMs to get apps embedded into their vehicle systems have not yielded desired results over the years. Through AppLink, one can enable features like streaming music, or even instant messaging. However, not all features or apps on smartphones are useful to drivers. Games, for instance, could be potentially very dangerous.
Ford introduced AppLink on the Fiesta sedan in June this year, and the rollout on the EcoSport is not very far away. Huang confirmed the initial feedback from Indian consumers has been very good, and most users appreciated the integrated experience of the feature. As of now, AppLink supports only two apps in India – MapmyIndia explore, which helps in locating the closest fuel stations, parking or nearest restaurants and ESPN Cricinfo, the popular cricket app.
The company is now engaging with various local Indian app developers, and believes the portfolio of apps supported by AppLink would grow substantially in a year's time. These could include music, navigation and communication apps like WhatsApp. Huang said the second phase with mapmyindia would be to engage their navigation platform.
The United States is the largest AppLink market currently, with over 60 apps supported by the platform. The Asia Pacific market has close to 30 apps, led by the Chinese market. A feature of the SYNC infotainment system, AppLink would get into every Ford vehicle that is equipped with SYNC platform over time, Huang said. In the US, Ford already has over 1.5 mn AppLink-enabled vehicles, and this number is likely to go up to 7 mn globally by 2015. Globally, SYNC-enabled Ford vehicles would account for over 10 mn units. "It is our pledge to have every Ford vehicle feature AppLink, and we are making it happen," Huang concluded.
Text: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah