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Taking the Connected Home on the Road

Aug 18, 2008 10:31 AM, By Jeff James

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Judging by the success of the Apple iPhone and other smart phones, today's consumers are more interested than ever in having a rich mobile-phone experience that includes email, web browsing, games, music, and other types of dynamic interaction. This trend hasn't gone unnoticed by the auto industry, which has been working for years to add support for music players and Bluetooth devices to their product offerings.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious examples of this new trend is Ford Sync, an in-car communication system jointly developed by Microsoft and Ford Motor Company. Using Ford Sync, drivers can use voice commands to check their voicemail, access music on a digital music player, change the radio station, and place calls with a Sync-supported mobile phone. Sync supports dozens of mobile devices, ranging from the iPhone to Windows Mobile-equipped smart phones, and other devices. (See Ford's Sync website for a complete list of Ford Sync-compatible devices.) Ford Sync is currently available as an option on many 2008 Ford and Mercury vehicles, and is a standard feature on all 2009 Lincoln models.

I had the opportunity to speak with Gary Jablonski, manager of Telematics at Ford Motor Company, about Ford Sync, and what the future holds for this exciting new technology. (For more about how Ford Sync works with mobile phones, check out the Windows IT Pro article Ford Sync Makes Mobile Phones More Mobile.)

Jeff James: When did you start actively talking to Microsoft about developing Ford Sync?

Gary Jablonsky: Our conversations with Microsoft started slowly, and increased with intensity over time. We signed a contract for the Sync project and actually started work in the first quarter of 2006. I want to say it was March of 2006, but first quarter is safe.

JJ: Prior to that, was there any development work done on what was to eventually become Ford Sync?

GJ: Well, the history of Sync is an interesting story by itself. The product concept [for Sync] within Ford was really hatched by a grassroots group of engineers who were really motivated to change the way we develop entertainment and communications system for automobiles. It typically takes us the better part of three years to bring a product from idea to production. The end result of that is you go to a showroom and see a brand-new car, and the technology in it is three years old, at best. So, some engineers here that work on my team were motivated to find a way to increase the speed at which we could introduce new features and try to keep pace with the consumer electronics industry, in terms of compatibility with phones and other devices that people were bringing into their cars.

We independently hatched this concept for putting a high-horsepower computing hardware platform in the car, then building features over time on it in software. Because the features are built in software, development time is much shorter and creates the possibility of upgradable vehicles; I can buy it today, and get a new software application tomorrow.

Ford engineers had a concept for putting a platform in the car. We somewhat crossed paths with Microsoft almost by coincidence. They had internally been working on a derivative of Windows CE (now called Microsoft Auto) that was really built around the same vision: to put a [hardware] platform in the car, put a flexible OS on it, and create an environment to really encourage innovation and [the development of] lots of software applications. It was a very happy, coincidental marriage. Our visions were almost perfectly aligned, [as] Microsoft needed an automotive partner to try to push this into the auto industry and Ford needed a technology partner to make this idea a reality. The partnership has been really productive and beneficial for both of us.

JJ: How long did the development of Ford Sync take?

GJ: Our first functional prototype—the first system we assembled in a car and were able to demonstrate to any significant extent—was in early 2007. From that point forward, we completed the applications that were in the device, and began [closed] testing and beta testing. We had a very large fleet [of Sync-equipped vehicles]— approaching 100 internal customers, actually Ford employees in Michigan—who helped test the system from about March 2007 until we launched in August [with the 2008 Ford Focus]. So from about March 2007 to August 2007, we had a substantial beta test fleet that continually helped us test the Sync system.

A huge variable and a big challenge in developing any product like this was our desire to have broad device compatibility to phones and music players. The Bluetooth standard isn’t a "standard" standard. So, that really was a challenge for us. If you develop a Bluetooth system and want it to talk to [Bluetooth-enabled] phones, you really need to test that device with [a large number] of other Bluetooth devices. A good portion of our development time was spent either purchasing devices or setting up sessions in which we had customers bring their devices in and verify compatibility or reveal incompatibility issues.

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