Blog Post

Ford: Apple and Google are welcome in our cars, but Sync is here to stay

Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto are coming to Ford cars, but they’re not going to displace Ford’s long-running connected car platform Sync AppLink, according to Ford’s vehicle connectivity chief.

“We’re not handing things over to [company]Apple[/company] and [company]Google[/company],” said [company]Ford Motor Company[/company] Executive Director for Connected Vehicles and Services Don Butler said. “That’s not the way we see it.”

Next week at Gigaom’s Structure Connect conference, I’ll be speaking with Butler in more depth about Ford’s long-running connected car strategy, touching upon topics ranging from autonomous vehicles to Ford’s open source hardware program OpenXC. But in an interview before the conference, Butler set the record straight about what role Google and Apple will play in the vehicle: that of supporting cast, not the main attraction.

Apple's CarPlay system (source: Apple)
Apple’s CarPlay system (source: Apple)

Butler said he looks at both Android Auto and CarPlay as an extension of Ford’s strategy to support “brought in” connectivity to the car. AppLink works very similarly to the two overlay systems, running apps on the smartphone and using the device’s 3G or 4G radio for its connection to the internet.

[pullquote person=”Don Butler” attribution=”Don Butler, Ford”]“We’re not handing things over to Apple and Google.”[/pullquote]

The big difference is CarPlay and Android Auto are projecting their user interfaces into the car – quite literally sending a video representation of the UI into the car’s heads-up display or dashboard screen. For every app running on AppLink, there’s a thin piece of software that resides in the dash optimizing it for the Sync command and control system.

That smartphone-centric approach already gives AppLink many of the same advantages as CarPlay and Android Auto. Since the heavy lifting is all done in the smartphone, Sync becomes more powerful as drivers upgrade their handsets, even as the car’s hardware ages. App developers don’t need to create a new app for the car; they just have to optimize their existing apps so they can tap AppLink’s APIs. And because the internet connection comes from the phone, Ford owners don’t have to buy a separate vehicle data plan.

The steering wheel-mounted voice command button on Ford Sync-equipped vehicles (source: Ford)
The steering wheel-mounted voice command button on Ford Sync-equipped vehicles (source: Ford)

What we’re going to see is the same apps popping up on all three platforms, Butler said. For instance, drivers who own iPhones will get to choose whether to listen to iHeartRadio through CarPlay or through AppLink’s native app. It makes no difference to Ford, Butler said, and he added he’s sure there will be some drivers who will choose to make Apple or Google the center of their connected infotainment experience.

I suspect there will be many developers who eschew working directly with the automakers and develop their apps solely for CarPlay and Android Auto – it’s the difference between working with two developer programs and working with two dozen. But those developers who do choose to code directly on AppLink will be able to produce more tightly integrated and potentially more sophisticated apps. Pandora, for instance, recently said that it wants to be as easy to use in a car as an FM radio, which means it will integrate deeply with the native operating system wherever possible.

Butler added CarPlay and Android Auto will most likely be walled gardens featuring Apple and Google’s core services and implied AppLink will offer a much more open environment for competing apps. Though he didn’t name Google’s extremely popular navigation app by name, Butler’s implication was Google Maps is much more likely to appear on AppLink than it will on CarPlay.

I’m a bit skeptical of that claim though. The automakers have plenty of walled garden tendencies themselves, especially when it comes to core driving services like navigation. Ford is more open than most, and it has even let competing navigation apps like Telnav’s Scout into AppLink. But if the car dashboard is going to become a turf war, then Ford has plenty of ground to protect.

To hear more of Butler’s thoughts on the growing entanglements between Silicon Valley and Detroit be sure to check out our Structure Connect session next Tuesday at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco.

8 Responses to “Ford: Apple and Google are welcome in our cars, but Sync is here to stay”

  1. If people would just take the time to follow instructions they would realize Ford Sync works as intended. I have it set up in two different vehicles. Both cars integrated with an iPhone and Blackberry. Works especially well with the iPhone.
    Time would be better spent to learn how to use the product then complain that you were not able to figure it out!

    • OK, I have a 2013 Focus Titanium. Explain to me the proper instructions to use this infamous AppLink? Oh wait, you can’t, because I paid extra to not have that functionality.

      I have spent hundreds of hours trying to get the most out of MyFord Touch and have come up short over and over. The best part, it’s so integrated into the console/vehicle, there isn’t even a suitable aftermarket replacement yet.

  2. MrSurfboard

    Why does everyone try to reinvent the wheel. Apple and Google are experienced in the mobile field, car companies aren’t. One has only to look at the goofy and clunky interfaces on most car infotainment systems to realize that.

  3. Ford doesn’t want to lose the opportunity to charge me $150 for updated maps on myFordTouch system.

    All I want is Google Maps (always updated for free) to display in the car Ford.

  4. hundoman

    Well hopefully the Ford Sync stuff will be getting better since Ford recently dumped Microsoft for the backend OS and switched to Blackberry QNX like 70% of the car telemetrics and head-end system currently use.

    Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto platforms just run as a virtual machine on top of the Blackberry OS so Ford could implement whatever it wants without much difficulty.

    When is CarPlay actually supposed to come out as I can’t wait to have iOS apps from the iTunes store running on my Blackberry phone like I have via Google Play store and Amazon app store.

  5. Jason Barton

    I rented a Lincoln MKZ recently for a business trip. My experience with Sync was absolutely awful. I am purchasing a new car this year and have ruled out any vehicle with Sync. What’s worse, there is no way to replace it with something else, it’s so woven into all the functions of the car.
    I keep cars a long time, my current vehicle is a GMC Yukon Denali XL, I’ve had it ten years. Automotive touch screen systems are horribly designed and sluggish. If they are so bad when they are new can you imagine how bad the irreplaceable systems are going to be in three to five years? Ten years?