A smartphone and an automobile meet at a bar.
The smartphone purrs, "Hey, big-and-shiny, let's hook up! I have this cool app we can try."
The automobile backs up a bit and replies nervously, "Only if I know you're safe."
A marriage of convenience
Can this relationship launch? Well, it has to. Many stakeholders, both from the auto industry and from the high-tech sector, are working hard to unite trendy, fast-changing smartphones with conservative, cautious cars, so drivers can use them safely together. But it's a very odd couple, and I got caught in the middle of some of their arguments while using Ford's Sync AppLink in a 2014 Fiesta.
Google's Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay have grabbed headlines lately for their yet-to-ship technologies, which are designed work with compatible car infotainment systems to serve up apps safely. The platform-independent MirrorLink does the same thing and is already available.
Meanwhile, Ford's own Sync infotainment system is way ahead of the game. At CES in January, the company announced Sync AppLink, a small, but growing selection of compatible apps that can be used safely in selected Ford cars.
Sync's not perfect, and neither is AppLink, but Ford deserves credit for keeping up--not a strong suit among typically slow-moving automakers--and for facing the many, many issues around marrying smartphones and their apps to cars.
To start with, not all Ford cars can use AppLink. According to Ford's Julius Marchwicki, that's because not all the head units are ready to work with AppLink.
Also, the app selection varies by phone platform. For my iPhone 5s, my app selection included music apps like Pandora and Spotify, destination apps like Yelp, and informational apps including NPR News and AllergyAlert. Android phones enjoyed about the same number of apps, but a slightly different selection. BlackBerry phones had a smaller list of apps.
You start by running the installed app on your phone. The magic is supposed to begin when you connect the phone to your car, calling up the AppLink-compatible implementation of the app.
In the case of the iPhone, the process is very un-magical, because I have to tell the car to look for the app. In the case of Spotify, once AppLink found the app, a special lock screen appeared on the phone, so I couldn't use the app on the phone even if I wanted to. Ford's Julius Marchwicki confirmed that the screen was designed under the assumption that I'll be running the app safely, using the car's physical or voice controls.
The iPhone can't multitask, so neither can AppLink. I have to close one app before I can use another, and that's not safe to manage while driving. Ford's Marchwicki says the company is working on an update to AppLink that will allow more than one app to connect at a time. On Android, of course, this is not an issue.
AppLink also threw out alarming messages as I switched apps, stating there were problems, or that it couldn't see any apps and had to look for one. Ford's Marchwicki acknowledged these transitional messages were "not graceful."
Another example of the challenges in marrying an app to a car: In Spotify, there were controls for "Shuffle" and "Info" onscreen, controlled by buttons below the screen. I actually couldn't use the controls, though. Ford's Marchwicki acknowledged this as "a top customer issue" and said newer apps can write their own commands onto the buttons.
And the voice controls... oh, the voice controls... they've never been that great on Ford Sync, and for controlling an app they were no easier. If you don't know the correct voice command--and who does?--you have to sit and listen to the system recite all of the commands for you. The list can be overwhelmingly long, and you can't stop it. By the time it was over, I'd lost track of which command I needed--and was so distracted I'd forgotten what I wanted to do in the first place.
Relationship status: It's complicated
My experiences using Sync AppLink in a 2014 Ford Fiesta weren't just the car's fault: My phone brought its own limitations, and the apps also hadn't worked out all the kinks. It shows the challenges and growing pains of this complex, yet necessary, step in car technology.
It'll be interesting to see what happens as Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and MirrorLink become widely available in future cars. They should erase a lot of the ease-of-use issues, but they, too, have app stores to build out. Like Facebook says about relationships: It's complicated.