Mobile Apps Are Not Just for Smart Phones; Ford Courts App Developers

6/30/11Follow @xconomy

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how cars have become enormous smart phones on wheels. At the time, though, I didn’t know just how much Ford Motor agreed with me.

I certainly do now. The company (NYSE: F), based in Dearborn, MI, is aggressively recruiting software developers to write mobile apps specifically for its SYNC in-car connectivity system. Ford’s online SYNC Mobile Application Network has already attracted about 2,500 submissions. The company is wooing developers on college campuses and consumer electronic trade shows in Europe and the United States.

When you think about it, Ford’s foray into mobile apps makes sense for both the car maker and app makers.

Thanks to Apple’s iPhones and RIM’s ubiquitous BlackBerrys, world wide revenue from mobile app stores will hit $15.1 billion this year, a 190 percent increase from 2010, according to the research firm Gartner. That includes revenue from consumers who buy the apps and the apps themselves generating advertising revenue for their developers.

For apps makers, cars could offer another lucrative sales platform. And just as unique apps helped propel sales of iPhones and iPads, Ford is counting on apps to make their cars more appealing to prospective buyers.

In some ways, fuel economy, style, and even quality have become commodities, says Doug VanDagens, global director of Ford’s Connected Services Solutions unit.

A robust selection of apps can be “one of the most important differentiations for our company,” he says. “We want to sell more cars.”

So far, Ford’s apps, currently sold through iTunes and the Android market, are mostly intuitive, focusing on navigation, emergency calls, and traffic information. Eventually though, apps will expand into advanced search, social networking, and entertainment, VanDagens says, though he notes there are limitations.

“What’s applicable in the car is not applicable for the Xbox,” he says.

VanDagen says Ford’s main advantage is a broad architecture that’s “very app friendly” versus competitors he says force developers to adapt to specific car platforms.

Ford’s courting of the Silicon Valley world seems to be paying off.

CEO Alan Mullaly has delivered a keynote address at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for three straight years now, a key technology gathering where people are more likely to see Steve Jobs or Bill Gates than a Big Auto executive. Ford has also won “Best of CES” award from CNET, and Popular Mechanics’ Editor’s Choice award for its MyFord Touch driver interface technology.

“We’re not super, super smart, but we are on top of what’s happening in the consumer electronics world,” VanDagens says.

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