Ford Sync AppLink connects cars, smartphones

The feature coming later this year will let drivers control some applications hands-free

North American drivers of the upcoming 2011 Ford Fiesta will be able to use applications on their smartphones just by speaking commands and using buttons on the steering wheel, through a feature called Sync AppLink.

The latest extension of Ford Motor's Sync system initially will work only with BlackBerry and Android devices on the subcompact Fiesta, but it will be expanded to the iPhone and to all other Ford vehicles with Sync next year.

Ford, one of the world's largest car makers, wants to provide a safer and more convenient way for Ford owners to use their mobile phones while driving, an activity that is even illegal in some U.S. states unless the driver can do it hands-free. But smooth integration between their cars and popular smartphone apps could also give Ford a powerful tool to attract coveted young buyers. Other car makers, including BMW and Audi, have also introduced some features to make mobile phones work better with their vehicles.

Sync is already available for most Ford vehicles, providing voice control of audio equipment as well as on-demand traffic information, turn-by-turn directions and local news, weather and sports. That content is delivered in less than one minute from a network of data centers and is free for the first three years of the vehicle's life and $60 per year afterward.

What AppLink adds is the capability for tight integration between mobile applications and the Sync system. Smartphones will talk to Sync via Bluetooth. Sync users can already stream audio from their phones to the car via Bluetooth, but today they have to pick up the phone to view information or change what they're listening to.

On the Fiesta, a model that is being reintroduced to the U.S. after many years, Sync will be standard equipment on high-end versions and a $395 option on others. The vehicle will go on sale in the summer, and buyers who get the Sync feature on it will be able to load AppLink software on it via a USB port in the car when that update becomes available in the fourth quarter, said Ford spokesman Alan Hall.

Three applications are already set to work with Sync AppLink: Pandora and Stitcher Internet radio and OpenBeak, a Twitter application. As examples of what they can do, Pandora allows users to hit buttons on the steering wheel to navigate among their custom Pandora radio stations, and to verbally tell the software to download a song they like after they get to their destination. Stitcher, which delivers news and other types of radio programming from various sources, can identify those sources for the listener verbally.

OpenBeak allows a driver to verbally request a Twitter timeline and have Sync read out the latest tweets in order. It doesn't let drivers post tweets verbally yet, because speech-to-text conversion isn't yet accurate enough to do that without distracting the driver, Hall said.

To bring more smartphone apps to their cars, Ford will offer an SDK (software developer kit) later this year for developers to "Sync-enable" their mobile applications. On Tuesday, Ford launched a site where mobile developers can submit ideas and sign up for information about the SDK.

Ford did not disclose plans for Sync AppLink outside North America on Tuesday.

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