Microsoft Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are teaming up to deliver a new breed of vehicle operating system that will enable consumers to dock handheld music players and cell phones in the car, and then operate them with voice commands.
Known as Sync, the new operating system will be integrated into 12 Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury products in the 2007 calendar year. (See a video demonstration of the Sync.) The software, which emerged from an existing Ford-Microsoft relationship, is the biggest step yet taken by the auto industry to acknowledge that it must allow consumers to bring their own mobile media devices into the vehicle. As implemented by Ford, Sync can host nearly any digital media player, including the Apple iPod, Microsoft Zune, PlaysForSure players and most USB-based storage devices.
“We tried to take consumer devices that people use in the office and in the gym, and seamlessly integrate them into the car,” says Scott Porter, lead program manager for Microsoft Auto.
Despite early reports, the new vehicle operating system isn't about the Internet or about sending e-mails. Rather, it's an operating system that serves as a foundation for consumers — particularly young consumers. Its first embodiment could be in the low-cost Ford Focus, where Ford executives expect iPod equipped consumers to start hooking up.
Sync includes standards for Bluetooth, so drivers can sync a hands-free wireless ear piece with their phones. It also can display mobile phone text messages on screen, another sign that Ford and Microsoft engineers were thinking of young adults and teens with their new entry.
Industry experts say the Ford-Microsoft entry is a sign that automakers and electronics executives are developing a better understanding of how computer entertainment and media should work inside the vehicle. “Five or six years ago, automakers made the mistake of trying to replicate the PC experience inside the car,” says Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst and vice president of research for Gartner Dataquest. “This shows that companies are getting smarter.”
Microsoft engineers emphasized, however, that Sync's emphasis on mobile media doesn't mean Microsoft has forgotten its earlier devotion to the Internet in the vehicle, especially for passengers other than the driver. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft executives demonstrated Ford luxury vehicles equipped with back-seat Internet capabilities.
“Ford Sync has chosen not to implement Internet browsing or e-mail, but the Microsoft Auto platform does allow it,” Porter says. “Internet browsing is a rich activity. It's a good rear-seat activity.”