Ford this week revealed Sync 3, a complete rewrite of its in-car, voice-controlled smartphone connectivity system. Sync 3 is better in nearly every way for end users, but Ford made some huge and eyebrow-raising changes to the platform under the hood that will impact developers, too. Here's the scoop.
To start, Ford improved the core functionality of Sync, and added new features along the way. Perhaps the most noticeable change is how the service performs in vehicle dashboards. The lag that made Sync 1 and Sync 2 frustrating to use is completely gone. It is much faster and more fluid. The voice platform is better able to recognize conversational speech, which means drivers don't have to talk to their car as if they were a robot. The touch screen menu is more intuitive, with an easier-to-understand GUI, and it adds Siri Eyes-Free mode for iPhone owners. Further, Sync 3 can be updated via WiFi.
Since its inception, Ford has used Microsoft's voice platform for Sync. Both Sync 1 and Sync 2 relied on Microsoft's backbone to process commands dictated by vehicle owners. With Sync 3, Ford dropped Microsoft in favor of QNX. QNX has long been a platform for automobiles. These days, it is better known by its parent company, BlackBerry. BlackBerry bought QNX several years ago, which is at the core of BlackBerry's BlackBerry OS 10 - 10.3 and PlayBook OS. If you feel panic beginning to well up in your chest, rest easy. The basics of creating Sync 3-compatible apps haven't changed.
Ford uses an API called AppLink to connect smartphone apps and Sync. FOr the launch of Sync 3, Ford partnered with major apps created by the likes of Spotify, Pandora, NPR One, Sirius, and others so that these are automatically recognized by cars with Sync 3.
Apps that were designed for Sync 1 should work on Sync 3 with just an update to the AppLink SDK in their application and minimal changes, said Julius Marchwicki, Ford global product manager, in an email to ProgrammableWeb. Most, but not all apps that are designed for Sync 3 will work on Sync 1, but may not have the same experience due to the use of APIs, icons and graphics that are not available on Sync 1. Marchwicki said that Sync 2 (MyFord Touch) does not have compatibility with the AppLink API.
For Sync 3, Forc updated the AppLink API to include additional features for Sync 3 head units, which include more flexibility to add custom graphics and icons, APIs for more control and functionality. Ford also added some new APIs for collection of vehicle data.
Ford hopes developers take advantage of the new AppLink features, which include showing the developer's app icon, using custom icons and graphics for each app, and modifying the screen layout to make the experience a bit more personalized and unique to each app. For example, Marchwiki said Spotify is taking advantage of the graphics API to show album art in the vehicle.
The line stops at AppLink, however; developers will not be able to create native apps for the QNX-based Sync 3 platfom. "AppLink is the only method by which applications can be delivered to the Sync 3 system," explained Marchwiki. "This is actually a benefit to developers, since they often already have applications for iOS and Android. With the addition of the AppLink SDK, these applications can quickly be brought to market on the Sync 3 system after validation and approval from Ford's ecosystem."
AppLink is compatible with Android 2.1 and up, and iOS 4.1 and up. Most chances are developers haven't looked at operating systems that old in some time. Ford didn't specify if Android 5.0 Lollipop and iOS 8 are supported just yet. Either way, the process for making apps compatible with AppLink remains unchanged.
While it's perhaps disappointing to learn that developers won't be able to target Sync 3 directly with QNX-based apps, they will be able to port their smartphone apps to Sync 3 quite easily.