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

Automaker takes a different view of location-based apps.
So, instead of Yelp's iPhone app telling you a restaurant that people rated 4 1/2 stars is 300 yards to the left, it'll know that you actually just blew past the exit, so you're really 10 driving miles away by the time you'd get off the highway and turn around, so it should actually recommend something at one of the next few exits.

Or, you could give the app the context of your journey to find the right recommendation--an all-day adventure with kids, or meeting clients for a quick lunch? Or, it could consider the context of your vehicle-- if you're down to eighth of a tank, it could note a gas station that's near where you're stopping for food.

Prasad insists this is all possible in the near term, but none of the use cases strike me as a must-have. Perhaps that's why Ford's looking to other for ideas.

Car As Development Platform

To test out this idea, Ford is turning a group of University of Michigan students loose on an experimental software development platform for its vehicles. The idea is to let developers build--and someday sell--mashups that combine online apps with a vehicle's systems in a way that's relevant and safe for a driver.

Right now, six teams of four students are building such apps as part of their coursework. (Including the electric engineering program Google's Larry Page graduated from.) The student team with the best app gets to drive a new Ford Fiesta from Ann Arbor to San Francisco in May for the small, tech-rich car's U.S. launch.

The biggest risk for Ford is that it's dreaming up a dead-end technology--a car phone for the mobile Internet era. The car phone died because people wanted the same phone in or out of the vehicle. All they needed in the car was an interface to make calling and talking hands-free. Ford thinks about that, and talks about in-car software in three categories:

Built in: It's embedded software that runs the car, or that customers want to be the same every time they get in the car.

Brought in: This includes music, smartphone apps, or mobile phones, which people want to plug into their cars. Ford's Sync software, which Prasad's team worked on, voice-enables these.

Beamed in: This includes data or apps accessed wirelessly, either by a networked car itself or a smartphone plugged into the car.

Ford's not trying to reinvent apps that people can bring or beam in. "Our strategy is to create a platform that embraces the other platforms out there," Prasad says.

If Ford runs with this idea, its challenge will be the same one any software platform faces: Convincing developers that Ford vehicles are hot enough as a software platform that they're worth developing for it. And it's also going to have to keep doing what it's been doing better than most carmakers lately--the old-fashioned job of moving metal off the showroom floor.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

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