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Not Your Father's... Apps? GM Bets on Developers of All Ages, Including Teens

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Besides renovating part of its Renaissance Center to accommodate new teams of developers, GM is increasingly sending employees to hackathons across the US.

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Remember the advertising campaign proclaiming that General Motors' latest cars weren't your father's Oldsmobile?

General Motors (NYSE:GM) is again positioning itself to attract a new generation of consumers, but this time around the company is relying on a host of killer applications for its onboard computer platforms. Still not convinced that this isn't your father's General Motors? Consider this: OnStar, the groundbreaking communications system pioneered by GM more than 17 years ago, is actually older than some of the people currently developing new apps for the auto giant.

"We have the best engineers in the business," says Stefan Cross of GM's Global Connected Consumer and OnStar Communications divisions. "But we've been working with developers outside the company, some of whom aren't even old enough to drive. Widespread access to digital data has created some really cool ideas from a number of sources."

GM is on a hiring binge to build its in-house app development team as well. Some computer scientists are giving up Silicon Valley to live and work in downtown Detroit. Part of the attraction of working for the world's largest automaker is the rise in popularity of mobile computing platforms known as "driveables" -- a host computing system and accompanying applications that can control nearly every aspect of a car, even if it's sitting idle.

Crosstown rival Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) has its own suite of offerings under the Ford Connect brand. Toyota (NYSE:TM), which has been nipping at GM's heels for the title of world's largest automaker, equips many of its models with its Entune platform. Even outsides are getting into the "driveable" game: Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has repeatedly hinted that it plans to unveil its own car, which it views as a powerful computer that happens to have an engine and four wheels attached to it.

Besides renovating part of its Renaissance Center world headquarters to accommodate new teams of apps developers, GM is increasingly sending its employees to computer hackathons across the country where budding engineers compete against each other in all-night apps contests. Cross said one of his favorite apps to come out of a hackathon begins with two buttons that pop up on the touchscreen after starting the car: business and personal. If the driver presses the business button, the app keeps track of miles traveled and fuel consumption for use in a work-related expense report or for tax purposes.

At another hackathon, a group of teenagers came up to GM's engineers and asked what kinds of apps the company wanted them to develop. When the GM engineers began talking about different features of their latest cars, the teenagers interrupted them. "Um, we're too young to drive," said one of the teen developers. So their team created an app that helps their fellow teenagers learn to drive, including onscreen lessons on parallel parking and three-point turns. "There's nothing quite like coming at a situation with a blank slate," says Cross.

Like most driveable computing platforms, GM's system comes with two Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). The first are remote apps that interact with the driver even when nobody's in the car. The so-called Remote Link system can start the car, unlock it, and turn the lights on from anywhere in the world. The system also delivers diagnostic information, like tire pressure, onto the driver's smartphone.

The second set of apps reside within the car's onboard computer. Cross says GM's developer ecosystem now consists of more then 3,000 freelance developers around the world, plus the in-house apps team that the company has been ramping up in Detroit. With all the new apps coming in, Cross says a continuing challenge is to make sure onboard computing platforms have enough processing power to handle all that data. "It's all about having the right hardware to support the software," he says.
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