Ford Is Gearing Up To Fight The Stupidest Battle In The Car Industry

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Ford just announced that Toyota will be the first non-Ford-related car company to use Ford’s proprietary software platform to develop entertainment, navigation, and other related systems for their cars. You know, what they annoyingly call “infotainment.” Ford sees this as a big victory, but I don’t really understand why the fight is even happening.

Specifically, Toyota has licensed Ford’s SmartDeviceLink, which a Ford representative describes as

SmartDeviceLink or SDL is derived from our AppLink software which serves as the linking technology for how smartphone apps (not the smartphone devices or even their OS) get integrated into the vehicle.


Ford sees this as a win against Apple and Google, whose CarPlay and Android Auto platforms Ford sees as competitors for “ownership” of that center screen.

Ford CEO Mark Fields told Re/Code that

“At the end of the day, we don’t want to end up [like] the handset business.”

That’s a strange thing to say, since with this move Ford seems to be preparing itself to take the role of Windows Mobile in the modern handset market: a distant and usually forgotten third.


That same article also included a quote from Ford technical fellow Jim Buczkowski:

“We’re not going to develop every app, every experience the consumer wants. They are not going to be able to afford developing an iOS app and an Android app and then a Ford App, a GM app and a BMW app.”


And, again, what Ford is doing by pushing their platform is just what Buczkowski seems to want to avoid—proliferating proprietary platforms (that’s fun to say) which makes life harder for app developers, which in turn means the consumer gets more unwanted complexity and less actual functionality.

Currently, Ford, like other carmakers, does allow the use of either Google or Apple software when a driver’s phone is connected. Ford still doesn’t allow these other systems to have access to car-specific controls like remote start, parked car location, or anything like that.


As Automotive News sums it up:

The deal shows two of the world’s largest automakers remain wary about giving Apple and Google too much control over displays that IHS Automotive estimates will generate $18.6 billion in sales by 2021.


But... why?

What I fundamentally don’t understand is exactly why having control of the center-stack OS is that important to Ford. From a consumer perspective, being able to pick your own OS seems the best approach.


If your whole digital ecosystem is Android, you should be able to stick with that. If you’re an Apple-maven, you should be able to use some iOS variant. Hell, if you want a bare-bones system ready to take your own Linux-based open-source infotainment setup, you should be able to do that, too.

It’s not like SYNC was that great as it is. Historically, it was terrible, although we’ve heard the new SYNC 3 is much better, but not perfect. Frankly all these systems sort of suck, in their own ways. Having a standardized center-stack UI (with some room for individual company branding and look-and-feel) seems like a great benefit to consumers, who already know how their preferred OS works, they already are set up to purchase apps, and so on.


So, if it’s not for the consumer’s benefit, what does Ford have to gain in this fight? Their focus should be on building great cars — if people are actually buying a car based on the software on the center screen, that’s a sad state of affairs. Why waste R&D and development money into re-inventing a screen-based UI?

I’ve heard claims that SYNC is a big draw selling cars in the showroom, but I’m really skeptical of that claim. Are there hardcore SYNCheads out there? I’m sure it’s seen as a plus, but I think anything that easily connected with a driver’s phone, played their music, worked with voice commands, does navigation, and did a few other interesting/useful things would be just as good. Does anyone give a shit if it’s SYNC doing this? No.

They might care if it was the same OS they already knew, already had an app store gift card from grandma for, and already had on three devices in their pockets and/or house.


So, from an outside perspective, this just seems like a huge waste of time for Ford. Is this a fight worth fighting? Why not just let owners use full-featured Apple or Google software there? The money saved on SYNC development has got to be more than any licensing costs. Is there data they want to mine? Probably, but I’m sure there’s still a way they can gather that in their own cars.

Is there some other revenue stream I’m missing here? Ford’s selling the car — the very elaborate, self-propelled, sit-inside, center screen case — why, exactly, do they really want to fight to have their own software in their (and other companies’) cars? Is it actually worth it?


I suppose they see all the money that could be made licensing a platform, but how they plan on competing with two huge, established platforms that people already use for everything is a little beyond me.

If Ford wants to go head-to-head and fight Apple and Google (whom they’re already partnered with for autonomous car tech) on software and user experience, then good luck, buddy. But, from here, this just seems like an inane war, with no clear victory for the consumer in the end. Ford seems like they’d be better served making better, more engaging and useful motorized cases people can sit in while they use their infotainment devices.


Just build some good cars, Ford. Let people put whatever they want on the little magic TVs inside.

UPDATE: The system licensed from Ford is not an operating system — Ford’s SYNC is based on QNX. Revised information has been edited into the article.


Also, after talking with Alan Hall of Ford’s Technology, Research and Innovation office, I feel like I should clarify some things. What Toyota is agreeing to use is basically an application standard. Maybe sort of like CP/M, if you’re old like me and remember that. Sort of.

Apps are still developed on phones, and accessed from your phone’s app-getting methods, but the Ford SDL system provides a set of APIs that tell the developer how to get their applications working on that center screen.


Android Auto and CarPlay have a similar batch of APIs, meaning that we could be shaping cars into a three-branched app standard. Ford’s system allows use of Android or CarPlay as well, so hypothetically, you could run apps from all three?

Ford has no interest in relinquishing control of that screen for many reasons, most of which serve them: differentiation, brand identity, and so on. Standardization may be beneficial to customers, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.


Ford also suggests they provide more control over what data is logged and sent to app developers, and that there’s more controls to tweak what data is sent in their systems. This may be; I haven’t done a full comparison.

So, perhaps I oversimplified the center-screen issue. I’ll keep looking into this, and try to better determine what it actually all means for us, the drivers. I think at this point, everything is still in its infancy, and I’m just not sure yet.


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