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.