How TomTom opened up for innovation

Building open APIs has helped TomTom create a developer ecosystem to extend and integrate its fleet management platform

Creating open APIs has helped TomTom Telematics build an ecosystem of third-party developers who are using its WEBFLEET platform as the basis of a range of fleet and vehicle management applications, delivering additional features to customers across a range of industries.

TomTom Telematics is the business-to-business division of TomTom, an Amsterdam-headquartered company whose consumer division produces a range of popular in-car and personal GPS devices.

The WEBFLEET platform is currently used by than 45,000 customers to manage some 670,000 vehicles, according to TomTom Telematics.

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The system comprises a software-as-a-service fleet management platform, in-vehicle tracking and monitoring hardware, and, optionally, a ruggedised in-vehicle navigation and communication device for drivers.

A handful of years ago, TomTom made a conscious decision to open up its platform in order to broaden its capabilities, says George de Boer, TomTom Telematics’s international alliance manager.

The process began with the 2009 release of the WEBFLEET.connect application programming interface (API). The API was designed to allow WEBFLEET to integrate with an enterprise’s backoffice applications, such as ERP systems.

It means businesses can more easily integrate the fleet management system into their workflow; managing the dispatch of vehicles to fulfil new orders, for example. Data on a vehicle’s operations can be extracted from the system and fed into other applications; for example, to calculate a driver’s wage based on on-road hours.

Different industries and individual businesses can have wildly different requirements from their fleet management system, and the API offers an easy means for an individual enterprise or a third-party application developer to leverage WEBFLEET’s capabilities, De Boer said.

“Customers were asking for it; we weren't really building a partner ecosystem back then,” he said. “It was more like, ‘A customer has a need for integration, especially with his big fleets, and wants to connect to the backend’”.

The release of WEBFLEET.connect was followed, around half a decade later, by the release of additional public APIs, and over the last three or four years there has been a concerted “open innovation” push at TomTom Telematics, De Boer said.

“We decided from a strategic perspective that we wanted to do more with opening up and open innovation and actively start creating this partner ecosystem,” De Boer said. That ecosystem now encompasses more than than 500 software and hardware partners, he added.

“You could compare it with Apple and iTunes. We can do only a few things ourselves. TomTom nowadays is 4500 employees across the world. Almost 700 are working in TomTom Telematics, which includes a good number of developers — but still not as many as if we combined it with all of the development power that we now have from these 500 partners.”

“Suddenly you're talking about thousands or tens of thousands of developers,” he said.

TomTom Telematics’ other public APIs are LINK.connect, PRO.connect and OBD.connect.

LINK.connect allows the ‘blackbox’ tracking system and the in-vehicle communications hub to be connected to third-party devices. For example, it can be used to collate data derived from sensors or other accessories installed in a truck — such tyre pressure monitors or temperature sensors. That data can be used to deliver important information directly to a driver or to a dispatch centre.

“Take, for example, a transportation company delivering medicines that need to remain cooled,” De Boer said. “You want to make sure that these medicines have been at the right temperature all through that trip.”

Another example De Boer offers is hooking up a barcode scanner for service engineers, which could be the basis of a system that lets the next driver of a particular vehicle know what spare parts need to be replenished before he or she heads into the field.

PRO.connect lets developers access the Android-based TomTom PRo 2xx in-vehicle terminals, allowing them to create bespoke end-user applications that can be integrated with WEBFLEET.

The final API, OBD.connect, facilitates access to a vehicle’s standard OBD (on-board diagnostics) port, which can retrieve additional data about a driver’s behaviour and potentially provide them with feedback, via the in-car terminal, if they’re over-revving their engine or hard-cornering.

The API has been used by insurance companies to record data used for crash analysis. The OBD.connect API means developers can feed OBD data into a mobile application, for example. In Germany, the API has been used to deliver an insurance offering that adjusts a driver’s premiums based on their on-road behaviour.

Enticing developers

De Boer said lowering the barrier of entry has been key to building a developer ecosystem around TomTom’s APIs. Making API documentation available free of charge and without signing an NDA, for example. Developers can start using the APIs without paying for a WEBFLEET subscription and purchase the hardware at a discount, he added.

“The thing with APIs is: How do you market them to developers? What are the key elements that make an API very attractive?” he said. “What we learned, first of all, is that you need to make sure that if someone develops something with your API, they are confident that what they develop is theirs.

“Sometimes you see with the more closed APIs that when partners develop something, suddenly that IP is owned by the company that created the API. That's not what we wanted to do.

“That’s also what we learned from hackathons. In a hackathon, if some startup comes up with a great idea and creates a killer application with our API, then all that IP stays with those developers. They need to be confident that the IP remains with them so they can build a business out of it.”

“That’s, I think, the essential part of open innovation,” De Boer said. “You open up, but in a fair away —that's the first thing that we learned.”

The other lesson is to “make it as easy as possible” to use the APIs he adds: Providing guides and example source code that software developers can use as a jumping-off point.

Ease of use on a technical level is also a concern, De Boer said. When TomTom first began its API journey, it relied exclusively on SOAP to expose functionality.

“Along the way, we quickly found that we had to move into RESTFul APIs and work with JSON because the younger developers would not really enjoy making a software application based on SOAP standards,” De Boer said.

(“Of course we also need to still use SOAP because we have these big customers with traditional integrations and they can only talk SOAP,” he added.)

Finally: The reliability and security of a service must be up to scratch, he says.

“If you look at the availability of the API, it is 99.99 per cent, and sometimes even higher. If you compared it to the industry standard of 99.6... that's really an API you can build a business around.”

The WEBFLEET API adheres to the ISO 27001 standard, he added. “The ISO 27001 standard is today the hardest standard to comply to, security and privacy standards, and that helps especially for governmental agencies and emergency services, but also for the larger companies which don't want their information about, for example, which companies they visit gets on the street,” De Boer said.

Details of the WEBFLEET APIs are available from Telematics.tomtom.com.

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