Ford continues its bring-your-own-navigation push with Sync support for TomTom

Ford(s f) is bringing its Ford AppLink connected infotainment services to Europe, starting with the Ford EcoSport compact SUV. As part of its announcement last week, Ford listed a raft of new developer partners that will populate the new Euro-Sync with apps, including, Spotify, Glympse, Audioteka audiobooks, Wcities’ Eventseeker and Cityseeker. But one app in particular was notable: TomTom.

Ford is continuing the trend of opening up its dashboard-connected car platform to competing navigation apps. It started with Telenav’s free Scout turn-by-turn app, which originated on the smartphone and the web. And now it’s allowing a paid navigation service — supplied by a company Ford has traditionally competed against — into the vehicle.

tomtomAmsterdam-based TomTom is one of the biggest manufacturers of separate turn-by-turn vehicle navigation gadgets you bring into the car (though it also sells maps to the automaker’s own navigation division through its Tele Atlas business unit). Like all GPS device makers, though, it has struggled in the face of smartphone-based nav apps like Google(s goog) Maps, which customers can download to their devices for free.

TomTom tried to fight back by launching its own smartphone apps, but it’s tried to preserve its paid and subscription model. In the U.S. it charges $50 for its iOS app and $66 for its Android software and sells add on features like traffic via in-app purchase. But with a partnership with Ford – it also announced a similar deal with Renault – TomTom may gain an edge over its free-navigation competitors like Google. It will be integrated directly into the dashboard, rather than require its customers to mount a separate gadget to windshield.

TomTom said today its app won’t be ready for Sync until 2014, and it would release more details on how its Ford service will work when we get closer to launch. But I wouldn’t expect this be a full-feature in-dash nav system complete with 3D maps on touchscreen display – at least not yet.

Ford’s approach to apps has been very smartphone centric. Sync AppLink is more a user-interface than a full-blown application platform, and its implementation varies depending on the vehicle model or trim package. At it’s most basic level, Sync connects the smartphone to the car through Bluetooth or USB cable, and gives an app access to its voice command and control system – for instance you can skip a song or load a new channel in Pandora through uttering a few words or by tapping a button on the steering wheel.


The display on the dashboard can be as simple as text display giving basic info about a song selection or app, or it can be a full-bore touch-screen graphical user interface like that in the MyFord Touch, but in general there’s a limit to far a developer can delve into the platform.

While Telenav provides full 3D-rendered maps in Scout smartphone app, on Sync the display is limited to more basic navigation graphics, though the voice-over turn-by-turn instructions are routed through the car’s speaker system and the app can be fully controlled with speech commands.

Still, Ford and the rest of the auto industry’s connected car systems are growing more sophisticated each model year. It wouldn’t be difficult for Ford to support full-fledged third-party nav apps on the dashboard that link to the smartphone and coordinate with the cloud. It’s just a question of whether it’s willing to take a leap of faith.

The more powerful its developers’ apps are in the car, the more valuable Ford’s Sync platform becomes to the driver. But it also makes those drivers much more likely to buy their vehicle nav services from a company other than Ford.