As jurisdictions clamp down on in-car usage of mobile phones, many drivers’ only interaction with their mobile devices is controlling Bluetooth audio playback from steering wheel controls, if they are lucky enough to have them.

Auto makers are taking different tacts with mobile technology usage: BMW has its ConnectedDrive connectivity, Audi has an interesting take with an augmented-reality manual, and Ford has its SYNC platform.

Over the weekend, TechRepublic was invited to take part in a 24-hour hackathon with Ford to try out its AppLink system, which allows for regular iOS and Android apps to integrate with the SYNC’s voice recognition and the vehicle console monitor. Ironically, although SYNC is made by Microsoft and runs Windows Embedded Automotive, there is no support for Windows Phone — and support for BlackBerry devices recently ended.

The process of putting AppLink into an app is relatively straightforward; once registered on Ford’s developer portal, for Android, it is then a case of downloading the library into your project and using the handful of APIs available to control the car’s display text and create audible alerts.

Currently, the API is rather limited, with display text only allowing approximately 20 characters on two lines. The text does not scroll, but Ford has a beta of its next edition of AppLink that adds support for this. Consequently, the easiest way to inform the driver is via text to speech.

This is a handy feature, as the system used by Ford does not have a display within the driver’s instrumentation in the dash, like that seen here, and the screen mounted in the dash is not touchscreen, instead having to be controlled with a plethora of buttons.

It’s a system that reeks of Microsoft-design principles, and after a weekend of using the system, I am glad I will no longer have to mash the menu button to access commands in the app I was creating, rather than having the commands and menus relevant to the app on-screen, or a simple one menu button press away. This should be negated by the use of voice commands, but the test units I was working on only had US English available, and found my Australian accent and word usage rather confusing.

A unique aspect of apps that use AppLink is that Ford dictates that the app have a lock screen when it is paired with the car. It makes sense and is regarded as a safety feature — force the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and navigate the app without needing to touch the paired device. It does mean that the discoverability of app features sinks to rock bottom, and, as I mentioned previously, going into the menu of an app is an arduous task. Hopefully the next version of AppLink will rectify these shortcomings.

With all that said, the idea of extending existing apps into cars is a good one, and it would be nice if there were a common platform to allow app developers a single target to aim at. To that end, earlier this year, Ford open sourced AppLink to the GENIVI Alliance, which is a consortium of auto manufacturers and technology vendors looking to produce a Linux-based in-car infotainment system. But given the slow pace with which the auto industry moves compared to the technology industry, I wouldn’t be expecting any Earth-shattering announcements anytime soon.

At the end of the hackathon, a motley collection of apps were produced, from geo-fenced reminders to bush fire warnings systems, to apps that turned an iPhone into a dashcam that uploaded videos to YouTube.

The winner of the “best new app” category for an app created within the hackathon’s 24-hour duration was the team from MYOB, which used its company’s API to create an app for mobile workers to receive and control job items, and even send invoices upon job completion while out on the road servicing customers.

Taking home the gong in the “best existing app” category for integration AppLink into an already built app was the crew from Millipede, who took their car log book app and added in AppLink’s voice commands.

Besides the sleep deprivation experienced from the event, the overwhelming feeling was how much better every app’s user experience could be with a couple more features added to SYNC.

App makers are not likely to hit the monetisation jackpot with an in-car app, but the day that it first happens is getting closer.

Chris Duckett attended the Ford AppLink hackathon as a guest of Ford.