Cars Are The Next Playground For App Developers

This year’s CES may have been about startups more than ever before, but over the last few years, the car industry has also increased its presence at the show. In previous years, we heard a lot about the connected car, but until now, those cars remained virtually closed to developers. In one fell swoop, that changed this year, as Ford and GM announced concrete programs with SDKs and APIs that are either already open for developers or will be available within the next few months.

The approach the two companies are taking is very different: Ford is betting on drivers bringing their own smartphones into the car and having apps run on the phone, while GM is actually setting up a framework for running apps right in the car’s built-in infotainment system. Both of those systems have their merits: Ford’s AppLink system is easy to integrate into existing apps and drivers don’t have to pay for yet another data plan. GM’s framework, on the other hand, is more deeply integrated with the car and doesn’t necessitate a smartphone.

ford_rhapsodyFor the car industry, betting on the developer community makes a lot of sense. Because of the long lead times between designing cars and launching them, it’s virtually impossible for the manufacturers to keep up with the fast pace that we’re used to in the world of mobile development. That’s where Ford’s system may also be an advantage. We tend to get new smartphones much more often than we buy new cars, after all, and while those will only get more powerful, a system that directly tied to the car – like GMs – will look massively underpowered in four years and the average car is now on the road is now almost 11 years old.

If the early success of these programs is any indication, developers are clearly excited about these new opportunities. Ford tells us that more than 1,000 developers have already signed up for access to its SDK since it was announced earlier this week and that it is seeing high and sustained traffic to its developer site.

What will be interesting to see now is what apps developers come up with in this new environment. While these programs were still in their private closed betas, the focus was mostly on offering radio alternatives through services like Pandora, Rhapsody and iHeartRadio. There are also some apps available already that automatically read newspaper and magazine articles to you. Other obvious choices are location-based and location-sharing apps like Glympse and turn-by-turn navigation apps like Scout. But the most exciting applications, of course, will be the ones that neither the car industry nor us pundits have thought about yet.