SYNC is Ford's in-vehicle communications and entertainment system that lets drivers make hands-free phone calls, and control things such as their music player via voice commands. Instead of trying to cram more and more functions into SYNC’s virtual brain, Ford engineers have taken a more flexible approach – they’ve created smartphone apps that drivers can control through SYNC, using voice commands or steering wheel buttons. Existing SYNC systems will first require a download of the AppLink software, which will debut on 2011 Ford Fiestas.

AppLink represents a new third class of SYNC apps, in that it allows for applications that are brought in on an external device. The other two classes are made up of apps that are built into the system, and cloud-based apps that are “beamed in.”

So far, AppLink is limited to Android and Blackberry devices. It isn’t able to control the standard versions of common apps, instead requiring SYNC-enabled versions. There are already SYNC versions of Pandora internet radio, Stitcher “smart radio” and OpenBeak for Twitter available.

In order to add to the stable of enabled apps, Ford has set up a developer network where interested parties can submit ideas for apps, and learn more about the application programming interface. They can also obtain the software development kit, which will allow them to make changes to existing apps, and create new ones that will be compatible with the SYNC system.

The main idea behind AppLink is that users will now have their eyes on the road when using their smartphones while driving. The question, perhaps, is whether they would otherwise be looking down at their phone, or simply not using it and paying full attention to their driving.