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December 16, 2009 Ford to reveal upgraded Sync system at electronics show | | The Detroit News

Ford to reveal upgraded Sync system at electronics show

It could be the automobile industry's killer app.

In January, Ford Motor Co. will unveil the latest version of Sync at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, including a new feature that will allow the system to work with virtually any application on a motorist's cell phone or music player, according to sources familiar with the company's plans.

That means drivers will be able to stream music from Internet radio service Pandora through their car's stereo or have Sync read incoming messages from their friends on Twitter. They will be able to control these applications using Sync's voice controls or listen to information from them using its text-to-speech system. And they will be able to use the many location-specific applications that provide information about nearby businesses and attractions.

"Ford is once again the first to create a new technology," said analyst Mark Boyadjis of iSuppli Corp. "They are the first ones to integrate social media into the automobile."

Sync is the in-car communications and entertainment system that Ford developed with software giant Microsoft Corp. It was introduced in 2007, and Ford promised to add new features on a regular basis.

The Dearborn automaker would not discuss the latest upgrade, but is expected to provide details to journalists later Thursday.

The new feature, known internally as "mobile apps," will be included in vehicles next year, but existing Sync customers will be able to download the upgrade and install it in their vehicle. But unlike the last upgrade that Ford released a year ago, this one likely will come with a price tag attached.

At its heart is a new application programming interface, or API, that Ford will make available to developers, allowing them to easily upgrade their programs to work with Sync.

Ford began offering Sync as an option in 2007, and the system has since proven a game-changer for the company. It already has sold well over a million units, and 70 percent of customers who purchase a Ford, Lincoln or Mercury product elect to purchase it. That has helped Ford increase the price it gets for its cars and trucks.

It also is attracting new customers to the Ford brand. According to the automaker, 32 percent of customers now say Sync was a key reason why they bought a Ford product.

"Fords used to be a pretty basic, plain-Jane car. Even the Lincolns were little more than leather and some sound-deadening," Boyadjis said. "Now, their cars are literally at the top of the space when it comes to technology. It has helped Ford gain market share from General Motors and Chrysler."

This year has seen major changes at Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft. After a decade as a separate business unit, its automotive division was folded into its embedded computing division -- a move some observers saw as a sign that the software giant was focusing its resources elsewhere.

Not so, says Greg Baribault, director of product planning and marketing for Microsoft's automotive group.

"We were replicating a lot of work that the general embedded computing team was doing," he said, adding that Microsoft often creates stand-alone business units to explore new opportunities and combines them with core parts of its organization once they are proven to be viable. "As the two grew, it became more and more confusing for customers. It just didn't make sense to keep these things running independently any more."

Baribault said the automotive business remains important to Microsoft, and said the company continues to invest in it, as well as its core home and office businesses.

"The car is a connection point between these two places, and it has really been an island without connectivity," he said. "For Microsoft, the car is a very strategic investment."

Boyadjis said Microsoft is putting a positive spin on its reorganization.

"I think most people took that as a sign of divestiture rather than investiture," he said. "But I don't think it really limited their ability to service the automotive market. I've seen continual advancement from them."

Ford was not the first automaker to use the Microsoft system. Italy's Fiat SpA introduced a system with the same basic features in Europe in 2006. Now that Fiat controls Chrysler Group LLC, it is working with Microsoft to bring its version to the United States, Baribault said.

It will likely debut on the Fiat 500, which is due to arrive in this country at the end of next year. Existing Chrysler models would not be able to incorporate the system until they are refreshed.

Microsoft also inked a deal with South Korea's Hyundai Kia Automotive Group after its exclusivity agreement with Ford expired at the beginning of 2008, though it has yet to bring a system to market.

"I can't give you a date, but we'll see something from Kia soon," Baribault said, adding that his company also is working to provide similar technology to suppliers. It also is talking with other automakers.

"The recession put a lot of these things on hold," Boyadjis said, though he expects to see other automakers introduce their own systems next year. However, he doubts any of them will pose a serious threat to Ford.

"Ford has taken over a lot of this and created its own ecosystem. It will be more competitive, but I don't think it will overshadow the success that Sync has had," he said. "Every year, they're announcing features that are not only groundbreaking, but easily upgradeable."

Baribault said many of Sync's hottest features, like mobile apps, are proprietary additions developed by the automaker.

"They're doing a lot of this without our direct engineering involvement," he said. "We're enabling them to create their own unique applications and provide them to their customers."
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