Developers, automakers grapple with the app gap

Great on the couch but wrong for the car? And where's the cash?

At GM's Innovation Lab, app developers whose proposals pass initial screening work with GM engineers to fine-tune apps so they'll mesh with the needs and limitations of drivers. Photo credit: SHIRAZ AHMED

DETROIT -- Bruce Hopkins has been determined to get an app into cars since 2009. And this year the co-founder of tiny BT Software will realize his dream.

His Kaliki Audio Newstand app, which reads news out loud for drivers, will debut this summer as standard in several Chevrolet nameplates.

But his road to the coveted center stack has been long. It took two years to create a version of Kaliki for smartphones. And then two more years -- an eternity in the tech world -- to retool it for General Motors.

Hopkins, 37, and other app developers working feverishly at computer keyboards across the country are becoming important players for auto companies. Get the right apps and you get the right shoppers, in the sweet spot of the market: tech-addicted millennials who will be buying cars for decades to come.

A 2014 Deloitte study found that 52 percent of millennials -- those born roughly from 1984 to 1995 -- say they want apps on the center stack.

And apps, an emerging key area of software for automakers, are seen by many as the key step in delivering content such as streaming music, navigation, news and recommendation services in the cars that those shoppers want.

But the barriers for Hopkins and his colleagues are formidable:

  • Unlike a couch-centric video game that can command a user's full attention, an auto app must deliver the goods without distracting from the main event: driving the car, safely.
  • Development and testing times needed to adapt an app to the complex workings of a car are, by tech-world standards, staggering.
  • Many app developers are working on shoestring budgets and aren't willing to wait years for an idea to pay off.

Hopkins said that one problem for app developers without an automotive background is that "they don't understand what you just can't do in the vehicle." And app operation "has to be seamless."

Hopkins: On the case since ’09

Another route

For some app developers, the road to success may run through the tech heavyweights that they know well: Apple and Google.

Two weeks ago, Apple unveiled CarPlay -- center stack display software -- at the Geneva auto show. CarPlay could funnel developers' apps into cars.

And Google recently announced its Open Automotive Alliance, a network of automakers working with the company to adapt Google's Android operating system for cars.

GM, which has been working closely with Hopkins, says it is leaving its options open. In addition to approaching developers, GM also is involved in various app partnerships among automakers and tech companies and has worked with Apple in the past. In fact, Apple lists Chevrolet as one of the brands committed to including CarPlay in future vehicles.

"This is an evolutionary environment we live in," said Junior Barrett, who's in charge of app strategy for GM. "We're investigating all different avenues."

Aside from the cost of working with app developers, it's a relatively low-cost enterprise for GM, which is not paying Hopkins' company. That's OK with Hopkins because higher exposure will increase the app's ad revenues.

The AppShop is GM's equivalent of the Apple App Store. In Apple's case, developers make their money either by selling the apps or from advertising revenue generated by free apps.

The initial batch of apps in Chevy's AppShop will be free. Eleven have been approved so far.

GM's Innovation Lab, tucked away at the end of an inauspicious basement hallway in GM's headquarters on the Detroit riverfront, is the place where GM and small independent app developers try to make the marriage work. Hopkins and members of his 20-person San Diego team were brought here to perfect the integration of Kaliki, working alongside GM engineers.

In a spacious, brightly lit room filled with flat-screen monitors and a mix of car parts and computers, developers sit side by side at laptops, tangled wires linking them to stand-alone, blinking center stacks. In an adjacent parking garage, Chevys equipped with touch screens and other necessary hardware wait for apps deemed ready for road testing.

Apps get tested on a vehicle display cluster. Photo credit: SHIRAZ AHMED

On the lookout

GM has intensified its search for app developers who can make the leap into the automotive segment. "Most people haven't developed for cars or thought of developing for cars," said Jeremy Tanner of Chaotic Moon, a tech firm that has partnered with GM on developer recruitment.

He accompanies GM staffers to developer conventions, competitions and support centers to showcase GM and to get developers brainstorming. At one competition, a team created an app that teaches teenagers how to drive.

Automakers want to attract ideas from everywhere -- "companies, garage developers and students," as GM's Barrett put it. But for developers, creating car apps is unfamiliar territory, and many apps won't make the cut.

Before developers get to GM's lab, they have to submit a proof of concept. This is a form summarizing their idea and a bare-bones mock-up of the app. GM will then either give it the go-ahead or kill it.

Auto safety guides much of GM's decision making. Successful smartphone apps are designed to fully engage users' time and concentration. Car apps can't do that.

"You'll have some mom playing 'Angry Birds' when driving and she runs over 12 kids," said CEO Ben Lamm of Chaotic Moon.

So recruiters have to get creative. For instance, GM offers cash prizes for successful proofs of concept. Developers can win up to $2,500 this way.

Prichard: Wants cars to tweet

'Opening up the kimono'

GM and Ford Motor Co. signaled their determination to develop apps in 2013 when both companies put snippets of source code for vehicle functions online for developers to download and work with. This was so developers can access the knobs, buttons and other functions used to control the center stack.

"This is something that car companies across the world were shocked to hear," said Mark Boyadjis, an analyst for IHS.

Michael Prichard, founder and chief technology officer of WillowTree Apps, calls this "opening up the kimono." It enables techies to develop apps based off car data, not just adapt apps originally created, say, for smartphone entertainment.

Said Prichard: "Why can't [my car] text me or tweet me that I left the windows down?"

Prichard has given speeches to auto executives about how to inspire developers to work with them. His company is currently in talks with automakers to develop car apps.

One data-based smartphone app is named Automatic. It links to a device plugged into a car's data port to do such things as offer tips to the owner for more fuel-efficient driving, diagnose engine warning codes and call for help if the driver is disabled in a crash. It retails for $99.95.

Meanwhile, at Ford . . .

Ford is using a different method to provide apps for drivers. Ford asks developers to adapt existing iPhone and Android apps to autos, which can shorten the process.

SYNC AppLink, which lets drivers use smartphone apps with Ford's voice control technology, has more than 60 apps certified for Ford vehicles.

Ford-approved apps are bought or downloaded through the iPhone and Android marketplaces, where developers can either charge customers for downloading the app or sell advertising on free apps.

Hopkins could afford to wait for his deal with GM to come through because Kaliki started generating revenue from its smartphone app from advertisers in 2011. Since 2009, BT Software has grown from two to 20 developers.

But many developers want or need a quicker payoff.

"We have to be able to see the dollar signs," said Ken Yarmosh, CEO of Savvy Apps, a firm that has created apps for the Public Broadcasting Service and the NFL Players' Association. "There are only a certain number of hours in the day."

He is the author of a how-to guide for developers looking to make careers through selling apps.

Yarmosh's team looked into creating apps for GM and Ford but decided to hold off and see whether any smaller developers succeed in turning car apps into cash.

Developing apps for cars is still in its infancy, and this is why most of the first AppShop offerings come from larger app companies that can spare the time and personnel. Pandora, the popular Internet radio service, is an example.

"We have to be able to see the dollar signs, there are only a certain number of hours in the day."
Ken Yarmosh
Savvy Apps

Cloudy future

The courtship between developers and automakers is just beginning, and it's unclear whether GM eventually will develop a robust pipeline to tap into the creative world of app developers. Apple and Google could become that conduit.

But by simply going to developer conventions to showcase vehicles, GM has increased interest in creating car apps. At the recent South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, Chevrolet held workshops on developing apps for cars.

Until the realm of car apps becomes more defined, it's tough to say whether developers will flock to automakers or stick to the tech companies they know.

In any case, it's likely that the best app ideas for autos will come from outside the industry.

Car companies "are in the market of selling cars, not creating and selling apps," said Boyadjis, the IHS analyst.

"Great ideas come from the masses. As good as the automakers are, they're not going to have the same focus as someone who's been writing apps for 10 years."

You can reach Shiraz Ahmed at -- Follow Shiraz on Twitter: @shirazzzz

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