Global CIO: Toyota's Friend Network Will Test Customer Ties - InformationWeek
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5/24/2011
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Chris Murphy
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Global CIO: Toyota's Friend Network Will Test Customer Ties

It's working with Salesforce.com to build a social network for Toyota owners, testing the boundaries of how much of a relationship you really want with a carmaker.

Here's Toyota's description of the platform:

Toyota Friend will be a private social network that connects Toyota customers with their cars, their dealership, and with Toyota. Toyota Friend will provide a variety of product and service information as well as essential maintenance tips, creating a rich car ownership experience. For example, if an EV or PHV is running low on battery power, Toyota Friend would notify the driver to re-charge in the form of a “tweet”-like alert. In addition, while Toyota Friend will be a private social network, customers can choose to extend their communication to family, friends, and others through public social networks such as Twitter and Facebook."

I find the use cases underwhelming. I felt the same way with Toyota's recently inked deal with Microsoft, in which Toyota will build apps on the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform, to be delivered via telematics to Toyota vehicles. As an example of what it might offer, Toyota cited a smartphone app that would let a driver remotely turn on the heat or air conditioning, or maybe someday control the temperature and lights at home via an app in the car.

What Toyota has done with its Microsoft and Salesforce deals, however, is build platforms for creative people to build upon. The huge question is how open those platforms will be for people to create.

Will only a few pre-approved partners be able to write apps for the Azure platform, or will it be more like the Apple App Store, where anyone can write but Apple decides what gets offered? How much control will Toyota exert over its Friend network? Certainly, vehicle safety worries will loom large when it comes to people writing apps or suggesting repairs and alterations to a vehicle. If Toyota had an open, wiki-like owner's manual, what if someone suggests a tweak to an electric car that could actually fry the batteries--or disable the brakes? Consumers also may worry about sharing personal data, like health information, with a carmaker.

That leads to the very real question of how much of a relationship you really want with your car or carmaker. Fortune columnist Stanley Bing recently wrote something of a Dear John letter to Toyota, suggesting his purchase of a Rav 4 was a brief and pleasurable encounter, not the start of a long-term commitment that Toyota envisions:

I just don't have time for the kind of intense connection that it's clear you have in mind. I have on my desk as I write this a stack of e-mail printouts half an inch high, and that's from less than six weeks! It's too much!

Every company will have to figure out how their relationships with customers are changed by mobile and social apps -- some will change hardly at all, some will change profoundly. Carmakers are proving they're going to be one of the industries that will test the new boundaries of those relationships.


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