The most exciting mobile tech announcements to come out of CES 2013 came from two unlikely companies -- Ford and General Motors. Yes, the century-old car manufacturers. On the same day that Ford announced its SyncApp Link developer program, GM went public with its plans to create its own market for third-party apps.
Ford and GM's announcement confirmed what we already knew. A healthy ecosystem of third-party developers can attract a huge number of users and it can either make or break a company. If you don't believe me, just watch this music video RIM released last September begging developers to come back to the BlackBerry.
Microsoft is on a similar, albeit less desperate, situation. When Windows 8 phones came out, Microsoft started offering free courses aimed at luring iOS developers to their camp. Ballmer doesn't even try to be sneaky about it either. Ads for courses titled Windows Store app development for iOS developers started popping up everywhere on the web.
But where do car companies fit in all of this mess? They make trucks and minivans, not computers! It turns out that many modern cars now ship with more than 100 million lines of code. To put this in perspective, that's roughly 50x the amount of code that is running on the Mars rover at the moment.
It's no longer hardware vs. software anymore. Ford and Toyota have more in common with Google and Apple than most people realize. Nevertheless, if car manufacturers really want to have something that resembles an app store, they are going to have to put their heads together and play it smart. As with everything else, there is a right way and wrong way of doing it.
The right way
On the one hand, Ford is developing an automotive platform that will allow existing mobile applications on iOS and Android to connect with the car. Developers don't have to reinvent the wheel with Ford's approach. All they have to do is add Ford's SDK to their current applications and they are ready to add a "Car Mode" if they want to.
Ford is being smart about their new platform in another important way. They are opening the kimono and letting other car manufacturers use their SyncApp Link for free. They want to create the Android of cars and they want to be the Google of it all.
Ford's willingness to collaborate doesn't guarantee that other car companies will join in on this platform, but at least it is the right approach. There are so many more car manufacturers than there are smartphone companies. Can you imagine the chaos if every car company had separate integration tools? Mobile developers would go nuts and there would be no market for in-vehicle apps.
The wrong way
Unlike Ford, GM isn't really interested in extending the functionality of existing smartphone apps inside their cars. They want developers to create apps exclusively for their infotainment system. Because that is what the world needs right now, another platform. An infotainment platform.
Companies can barely keep up with all the mobile platforms as it is. To keep up with the times, they already need to have at least four native applications -- iPhone, iPad, Android phone and Android tablet -- as well as a solid mobile web experience in order to compete. How are they going to muster the manpower to develop for yet another (untested) platform? They are not.
We don't have all the details yet but it seems that GM apps are only going to run on GM cars. That would be just fine if there were only a couple of car manufacturers in the world, GM being one of them. In reality, there are dozens. Seriously, what's the incentive for developers to make an "infotainment" app for GM if it's only going to reach a small fraction of drivers worldwide?
In such a fragmented market, the collective incentive should be to collaborate on a common standard, not to compete. When it comes to in-vehicle apps, the answer is to model Android, not iOS.
With car companies wanting to join in on the mobile app extravaganza, it may not be too long until my car can read Huffington Post news to me as I drive to work. My only wish is that one app will work not only on Fords or only on GMs but on any car regardless of brand. And I want my car to fly. That would be nice too.