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Summary:

In its latest move to woo third-party developers and the consumers who buy their apps, Ford today says it has launched a “developer network” for its Sync communication platform, and plans to let drivers control smartphone apps using the Sync interface next year.

Ford has big plans to court smartphone owners (a group that the automaker expects to spend $4 billion on mobile applications by 2012) and at the same time woo the third-party developers that made the iPhone cool. The automaker today says it has launched a “developer network” for its Sync communication platform (developed by Microsoft), and plans to let drivers control smartphone apps using the Sync interface next year.

To start, Ford plans to offer a software upgrade option to buyers of the 2011 Fiesta model that offer apps that are compatible with the BlackBerry and Google Android platforms. Next year, after that initial launch, Ford says it will extend interoperability to the iPhone and other smartphones, and offer the upgrade for all vehicles equipped with Sync.

What Ford has dubbed its developer network (which is supposed to be accessible Tuesday through the SYNCmyride web site) seems to be primarily a channel for submitting app ideas and signing up for info on the Sync application programming interface (API) and software development kit (SDK).

Ford has kept a fairly tight grip on Sync-enabled apps so far. The automaker said in its announcement today that it’s still working with “trusted partners” to complete “beta-testing” of the SDK. Ford first announced Pandora, OpenBeak and Stitcher as its “trusted partners” to develop demonstrations of apps hooking up to vehicle controls via the Sync platform back in January, at the Consumer Electronics Show.

So how does all of this fit into a slog toward a more efficient, lower-emission transportation sector? If cars function more like smartphones, with a web connection and an open platform on which developers can build applications, it opens the possibility for a wide and deep pool of services helping drivers better manage their use of fuel, and down the road, their battery charge. Already, Ford has tapped Microsoft’s home energy management tool Hohm to enable smart charging for upcoming electric vehicles.

Mobile apps hardly represent a must-have service for every EV driver (how many smartphone owners did you know back when General Motors’ EV-1 rolled out?), and in the early days of a technology that will struggle to compete on price with conventional vehicles, gizmos and gadgets could potentially add unnecessary cost. But they could also offer a set of tools for drivers to manage data — about topography, traffic, battery status, vehicle health, infrastructure availability, driving behavior — in a way that helps make the nascent world of electric mobility a little easier to navigate. (For more on this, see Green Cars Are the Platform, Now Come the Applications.)

According to Oliver Hazimeh of PRTM Management Consultants, who directs the firm’s North America automotive segment and clean mobility initiative, a handful of key variables are likely to drive an app’s “stickiness” in the EV market after the initial cool factor of smart phones and vehicle connectivity wears off. Hazimeh suggested in an interview (GigaOM Pro, sub. req’d) last year that some of the most successful apps for the upcoming generation of plug-in vehicles will likely be super fast, offer services needed outside the vehicle (such as charge point reservations), feature an ultra simple interface optimized for voice controls, and integrate with vehicle communication systems (such as Sync, or GM’s OnStar) as seamlessly as they do with your home or work computing platform.

Ford, however, isn’t about to take a chance on the hypermiler types or early EV adopters in the app marketplace. Rather, Ford director of connected services Doug VanDagens told us earlier this year that after the three initial partners, applications designed for broader consumer appeal (VanDagens mentioned stock and movie listings or horoscopes) are next in line. VanDagens explained (GigaOM Pro), “We won’t make it available for millions of [developers] out of the gate.”

Panelists will be digging into these topics at our Green:Net conference on April 29 in San Francisco, including: Ford’s Ed Pleet, Product and Business Development Connected Services; GM’s Paul Pebbles, OnStar Chevy Volt Service Line Manager; and Troy Batterberry, Product Unit Manager for Microsoft Hohm.

Images courtesy of Ford Motor

Related GigaOM Pro articles (subscription required):

How to Build Better Apps for Electric Vehicles

The App Developer’s Guide to Working With Ford Sync

Why Microsoft’s Electric Vehicle Deal With Ford Matters

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