Ford: From Model T to One-Ton API Client

Julius Marchwicki is the Global Product Manager for Ford SYNC AppLink. AppLink allows you to use your voice and radio buttons on your steering wheel to control some of your favorite mobile apps while driving. Julius works with companies such as Pandora, MLB.com, Spotify, and Amazon to deliver in-vehicle connectivity to a wide variety of infotainment resources.

Julius Marchwicki is the Global Product Manager for Ford SYNC AppLink. AppLink allows you to use your voice and radio buttons on your steering wheel to control some of your favorite mobile apps while driving. Julius works with companies such as Pandora, MLB.com, Spotify, and Amazon to deliver in-vehicle connectivity to a wide variety of infotainment resources.

API Economist: Congratulations on being the first automobile manufacturer to launch a mobile app developer program, announced at CES back in January.

Julius Marchwicki: Thank you very much!

API Economist: What was your API strategy behind the launch?

Julius Marchwicki: The strategy behind SYNC at large and what Ford has done is really to focus on what our consumers are doing. We went out and talked to a large number of consumers. We started to understand what they were doing inside of their vehicles, and what gaps we needed to fulfill for them. That's how embedded navigation came to be many years ago.

With SYNC, what we found was that consumers were using their devices—their phone, and their MP3 player—inside their car. They were jacking into the headphone jacks in their vehicle. They were trying to attach wired visor microphones to the device.

We thought it would be great to provide them with a hands free manner of using all of this technology. That's how SYNC came to be. Using voice activation and hands free experience, customers were now able to access their devices, their phones, and their MP3 players.

Shortly thereafter, a few years after we launched SYNC, we saw this explosion in the smartphone space. The iPhone launched and they launched a developer program, as did Android. Over time, we've watched those platforms move from, "Hey, we're a phone that has a really nice screen," to, "We are a development platform, and I'm going to advertise this phone to you by the cool apps that it has."

We noticed this trend as well as the app craze that was taking hold. So we asked, “How do we enable customers to access the applications on their phone, but do it in a hands free and safe manner?” Taking into account that not everything is suitable for use in a vehicle, there are a whole lot of things in the car that customers are going to want to listen to, news, sports, Internet radio, et cetera. That's how AppLink came to be.

Once we launched AppLink, we had a handful of partners including, Pandora, Stitcher, andiHeartRadio. As we started to walk down this process, we realized that the amount of innovation that we could do one-off with individual companies was much more difficult. Meaning, it was one of those things that, in order to keep up with the pace of what the app industry was doing, we had to effectively open up a method by which we could allow innovation to be nurtured and cultivated outside of the walls of Dearborn, Michigan and take advantage of the fantastic developers out there. Developers can now easily get started and build their first SYNC AppLink enabled application on iOS and Android. The APIs are wrapped in the available Technology Development Kit for SYNC.

API Economist: Who exactly are you targeting with the Ford Developer Program? Who is that developer?

Julius Marchwicki: It is a wide swath of developers. It can be a major corporation, a budding startup, or a guy in a garage. We're obviously tailored a little bit more the new startups and the new kind of innovation from companies. We are targeting applications that make the driving experience better in some key categories: music and entertainment, news and information, and location based services. These three app categories are very critical to the driving experience. Those are the categories of apps the developers are looking for.

As we start to mature the developer program, and we start to mature the types of APIs we make available to consumers or to developers, we should expect entirely new categories of apps. Right now, most of the products developed have been developed for the purpose of being used on a phone. We expect an entire group of new developers to create new and different applications that actually benefit from being in the car.

API Economist: The Millennial Generation is having an impact and evolving role on their relationships with brands. Is Ford aggressively targeting Millennials?  

Julius Marchwicki: Definitely, yes. But, based on trends we are finding, it's not just the Millennials. What we are seeing across all range of demographics is this desire to use the features that you already have on your smartphone in your vehicle. When we go out and do consumer studies on our user interfaces or our products, especially navigation, whether it’s a Ford or another manufacturer, we find that the minute they purchase their vehicle, their navigation system is out of date or it can't keep up with the pace of their smartphone or their device.

So often, I hear consumers say, “Why would I use what's in my car when I just have it on my phone?” Five years ago, that was something that no one would have said or just a very small, small fraction of the population would have said – and Millenials would have been in that group. Now, almost everyone has a smartphone. The sales of smartphones in North America are out-pacing feature phones for the first time.

We also know that the more Millennials are the ones that are going to be buying cars in a few years. They may have not made their first vehicle or new vehicle purchase, but we're definitely targeting the kind of consumers that grew up with things an app store or a smartphone.

API Economist: How are APIs different in a car versus traditional Web services?

Julius Marchwicki: There are a couple of considerations that we had when we first started building our API program. A lot of the technology that’s used in western API design today did not exist when we started designing AppLink. Concepts like RESTful APIs and JSON RPC did not exist or were not popular. We did our best to match it up with as much technology that existed as possible. But, because the time lines are so long, we had to design something that was going to work for us and meet all our particular use cases in a vehicle.

That's one thing. The other is, if you have a cloud based API or one that is designed for the Web, what you'll find over time is that the API or the interface doesn't have to change but the results and the data you send back from that API can change. Typically, it's easy to add data, change data, or deprecate data based on the design of your API. The interface is always the same. That's the nice thing about having a flexible cloud based system.

When the vehicle act’s as your server and when the vehicle lasts for 10 years, the API in the vehicle can't change. We can't change the data it provides, or the function that it performs. Even if you wanted to do something new in the vehicle, you have to perform an update to the vehicle itself in order to enable that functionality.

We had to think about everything we thought an app would do or could do and clearly the list wasn't all comprehensive. There are things that we missed and have to add in future generations. It's a bit of a challenge. It's not as nice as saying, “Wouldn't it be great if we did this, and tomorrow you can offer it to your customers.” Our challenge is that it’s still a significant period of time before I can actually offer something to a developer in a live, actual vehicle.

API Economist: In most vehicles equipped with Ford SYNC, the ability to perform in-car software updates with a USB key clearly gives you an advantage.

Julius Marchwicki: That's correct. We want to be able to deliver updates, functionality changes, and improvements that improve the quality of the product and the in-car experience. Our customers love it when they get an update. It's definitely an advantage for Ford.

It’s even better with AppLink. We just recently announced Spotify as one of our partners. Yesterday, you did not have Spotify and today you have Spotify. With AppLink, it's as simple as that. That's what's really nice. What we think about with our broadened strategy and AppLink is that we have this fantastic ability to deliver functionality without ever touching the vehicle, without ever updating the car.

The AppLink technology lets us create new and innovative products that did not exist before. The customer didn't have to go and do a USB update. They didn't have to connect their vehicle to a WiFi hotspot. All they did was download the app like they've done 50 billion times now worldwide and it's just there. It appears in your car the next day.

API Economist: How do you currently secure your APIs?

Julius Marchwicki: Today, the API is controlled by the library that's provided as part of the SDK (software development kit), as well as the business agreement or business arrangement. The APIs themselves can deliver fantastic experiences inside of the vehicle, but they're also extraordinarily restrictive in terms of what you can or can't do inside the car. I get a lot of questions such as, “Can't you just show video inside of a vehicle?” The answer to that is no. There is no API by which you can even remotely get access to a display that would let you render video or images of any kind. The same holds true with the APIs that we use to write to our displays. It pretty much accepts text only.

API Economist: At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona you announced that you open-sourced and contributed the AppLink software to the GENIVI Alliance. How did this come about?

Julius Marchwicki: For one, we listened to our development partners. What we hear from them most often is, “How can I use this anywhere else? Is there another car company or automotive supplier that uses this interface?” The answer we gave time and time again was no. We wanted to fix that, so to speak. For Ford, leading in technology is not just technology in the automotive space but also in the general industry at large. Part of the contribution to GENIVI, was Ford's commitment to saying that, for vehicles and for the vehicle ecosystem, we believe AppLink is the technology to help standardized for the benefit of the development community. It’s the best way to move forward in terms of integrating into the car. It addresses a lot of problems that other solutions may not address. That's part of why we did it…to continue the leadership and commitment to the technology industry beyond just the automotive.

API Economist: Have you guys thought about doing a hackathon?

Julius Marchwicki: That's a great question. We've done a number of hackathon-like events. A few years ago we went out to Facebook headquarters and did a hack with them using their APIs and our APIs. It was a fantastic experience. We've also been a sponsor at the TechCrunch hackathons in San Francisco. We had two companies come out of winning our hackathon contest (with our API) within the hackathon itself: Roximity and BeCouply, both location-based services.

Earlier this year we did a hackathon with a company called, Baidu, in Beijing, China. We had a team of developers, myself included, with nearly 90 developers from Baidu. They formed 26 different teams and created some really cool products. One of the ones that didn't win, but I thought it was fantastic, helped you shop. You would plan something on your device, meaning you would say, “I need to pick up flowers or I need to go get milk.” Being cloud-based, these APIs have some contextual meta relationship. They understand milk as a grocery store or flowers as a flower shop. They simulated driving with the app, where you would be notified that you're driving past a flower shop or a grocery store. I would definitely use an app like that.

API Economist: Now time for one of our favorite questions that we like to ask at The API Economist. What are your favorite mobile apps?

Julius Marchwicki: I love that question. As a big music fan, my two favorite applications are Pandora and Spotify. I love Strava. I don't know if you're a biker or not, but I'm a big Strava user. I haven't been able to use it in a few months because to the weather here in Dearborn (Michigan).

API Economist: Julius, thanks for your time!

Julius Marchwicki: It’s my pleasure. Thank you!