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Global CIO: Ford's Challenge: Social Networking At 70 MPH

Automaker takes a different view of location-based apps.

We can all agree you're a blooming idiot if you're reading Facebook updates or Tweeting about talk radio while you're driving.

That doesn't mean you won't want to, safely, tap the power and content of social networking while driving. Venkatesh Prasad's job is to help Ford Motor Co., suddenly one of the hottest carmakers in the U.S. with sales up 43% last month, figure out how.

Prasad's official job is running Ford’s Infotronics Research & Advanced Engineering team, making him responsible for the architecture, development, and integration of all the software that goes into Ford's vehicles. Unofficially, he's Ford's "what's next guy" for software and social networking, charged with figuring out what information technology drivers and passengers will want.

Prasad does what every IT shop should spend time on--thinking about how wireless data, social networking, and mobile devices change your products and your customers' expectations. (For more on companies thinking about wireless changing their businesses, see the Recommended Reading list below.)

Location-based apps are the hottest thing on smartphones. Just look at most every tech story out on the latest hipster SXSW conference. So I figured Prasad's job would be all about interfaces to voice-enable that blizzard of location-based apps.

Not quite, Prasad says. Voice is key, but Ford needs a different kind of location. Smartphone apps assume a person is stationary. Even with apps that use GPS, most assume the location you're concerned with is the one you're at. In a car, you're concerned with where you'll be over the next, say, 15 minutes. Location is a journey, not one place.

Ford's world is "the Internet of things that move fast," Prasad says. "That's a different terrain."

Ford will tap into existing social smartphone apps, but it's experimenting with how to spur additional software development that adds the context of a person on a trip. It's thinking about the car as a development platform.

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Consider trying to get a restaurant recommendation while you're driving. You can get ratings based on customer reviews from an iPhone app for Yelp or Urban Spoon. If that's all people want, then all Ford needs to do is figure out how to voice activate interaction with those Web sites.

But Prasad thinks people will expect more. They'll expect a car-based app to know where they're driving to, and what kind of trip they're on, and offer results that take that into account.

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