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

Automaker takes a different view of location-based apps.

We can all agree you're a blooming idiot if you're reading Facebook updates or Tweeting about talk radio while you're driving.

That doesn't mean you won't want to, safely, tap the power and content of social networking while driving. Venkatesh Prasad's job is to help Ford Motor Co., suddenly one of the hottest carmakers in the U.S. with sales up 43% last month, figure out how.

Prasad's official job is running Ford’s Infotronics Research & Advanced Engineering team, making him responsible for the architecture, development, and integration of all the software that goes into Ford's vehicles. Unofficially, he's Ford's "what's next guy" for software and social networking, charged with figuring out what information technology drivers and passengers will want.

Prasad does what every IT shop should spend time on--thinking about how wireless data, social networking, and mobile devices change your products and your customers' expectations. (For more on companies thinking about wireless changing their businesses, see the Recommended Reading list below.)

Location-based apps are the hottest thing on smartphones. Just look at most every tech story out on the latest hipster SXSW conference. So I figured Prasad's job would be all about interfaces to voice-enable that blizzard of location-based apps.

Not quite, Prasad says. Voice is key, but Ford needs a different kind of location. Smartphone apps assume a person is stationary. Even with apps that use GPS, most assume the location you're concerned with is the one you're at. In a car, you're concerned with where you'll be over the next, say, 15 minutes. Location is a journey, not one place.

Ford's world is "the Internet of things that move fast," Prasad says. "That's a different terrain."

Ford will tap into existing social smartphone apps, but it's experimenting with how to spur additional software development that adds the context of a person on a trip. It's thinking about the car as a development platform.

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Consider trying to get a restaurant recommendation while you're driving. You can get ratings based on customer reviews from an iPhone app for Yelp or Urban Spoon. If that's all people want, then all Ford needs to do is figure out how to voice activate interaction with those Web sites.

But Prasad thinks people will expect more. They'll expect a car-based app to know where they're driving to, and what kind of trip they're on, and offer results that take that into account.

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.

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

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