Ford Sync – The Basics

What is Sync?

Launched in 2007 and based on Microsoft’s Auto OS is a factory installed system ($395) designed to streamline the integration of cell phones and media players into the vehicle.  Sync primarily utilizes USB and Bluetooth to connect devices to the system and allow voice controls of the attached devices.

The Sync team has continued to expand functionality of the system since it first launched.  The updates have ranged from small to large and include iTunes Tagging, ‘Traffic, Directions and Information,’  API support, and much more usually delivered through an update downloaded to a USB device through a home computer.

A connected cell phone enables additional telematics services by allowing the sync system to transfer data out of the vehicle (over the phones data channel, which means no need for a data plan).

  • Safety and Security: In the event of an airbag deployment the system will use a properly paired phone to dial local 911 operators directly through the users phone.
  • Vehicle Health Reports: Users can request a vehicle diagnostic report which is uploaded to the Ford SyncMyRide site (the user’s web portal for vehicle related information) through the user’s phone.

Features Overview

  • Automatic Phonebook Transfer – A cell phone’s address book can be transferred to Sync over Bluetooth
  • SYNCMyPhone – Ford recently launched a feature, based on customer feedback, to allow customers to bring contacts into the vehicle on an SD card via a desktop based application that allows downloading contacts from numerous different contact databases (Outlook, gmails, yahoo mail, etc)
  • Voice activated Hands-free calling – Push a button and speak a name to dial a call.  Using voice recognition software the Sync system will try to identify the requested person without any training.
  • Audible text messages – The Sync system will use text-to-speech to read text messages over the vehicle’s audio system.
  • Standard calling features
  • Plug and Play Connectivity – Works with most Bluetooth and USB enabled phones and media devices to enable voice and steering wheel controls.
  • WiFi Connectivity – The Sync system will support the connection of the customers USB mobile broadband modem to create a local WiFi hotspot for in vehicle internet connectivity.  This will allow passengers in the vehicle with WiFi capable devices (cell phones, laptops, netbooks, etc) to connect to the internet.
  • Voice Controls – Sync uses Nuance’s voice engine to simplify the tasks of speaking commands to the system.  Recognizing over 10,000 first level commands the user should be able to speak requests normally (e.g. play rock music, play more music like this, or call Mark) and without special training.
  • Ring Tone Support – For supported phone the system will play personalized ring tones
  • Multiuple language support – Voice commands and display operate in English, French and Spanish.
  • Formats Supported – MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, and PCM.
  • Send to Sync – Ford Sync users are able to send Point of Interest or route information from mapquest.com to their vehicle (via a Bluetooth connected wireless device).
  • Sync Traffic, Directions & Information – SYNC TDI connects a customer’s Bluetooth-enabled cell phone to Ford’s Service Delivery Network voice portal delivering turn-by-turn driving directions, real-time traffic, business searches and favorite news, sports and weather – all through simple voice commands.

Why You Should Care

When Ford Sync was originally launched the automotive industry was in a nose dive and Ford was at the tip of it.  Now the industry hasn’t exactly recovered, but Ford is reporting that Sync equipped vehicles are selling twice as quickly as similar models without the system.  There seems to be no doubt that the demand is out there for the in-vehicle electronics and the system is helping sell cars.

Ford’s low cost approach (Bluetooth connectivity, minimal or no LCD displays, no real navigation) allowed them to launch the product on a dozen models and quickly expand to the entire model line-up of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury (including Ford’s lower end vehicles).  This strategy was almost unheard of (nobody wanted to risk adding cost to lower cost models), but has been a key element in the rapid and broad adoption of the Sync system.  This almost universal adoption across model lines actually makes the system easier to sell for salespeople who can spend more time learning about it in training and more time demonstrating it during the sale.  This may sound silly on the surface, but how informed salespeople are about a product is usually directly related to their ability to sell it…particularly with new and complicated technologies.

It surprises me that Microsoft has a hand in a system that seems to integrate multiple devices so seamlessly, but the MS Auto OS seems to be a solid backbone for the flexibility and compatibility necessary to support such a range of devices (maybe they actually figured out that whole plug-n-play system 15 years after Windows 95).  MS bashing aside, the partnership between Ford and Microsoft has birthed the first real attempt at making the car a hub of connectivity for the user.  The ability to use voice and steering wheel controls to control most connected device is the type of thing companies have been striving for.

The use of Bluetooth connectivity to leverage a users phone as a data connection is not a new concept, but most providers have chosen to use more reliable solutions that also require users to pay subscription fees.  It is generally believed that to properly deliver safety and security features the OEM must provide the best possible experience they can (particularly because it’s usually been high end customers) and deal with the customer fallout from people that can’t get connected for whatever reason (the cellular carrier / OnStar model).  Ford Sync seems to be demonstrating that an OEM can get away with offering an ‘opt-in with your own hardware’ option for free.  There by providing value to the customer (by enabling the services) while avoiding the significant development cost and overhead of a fully managed telematics platform.

Most importantly the ability to connect a wide variety of devices (unlock an iPod dock) makes the system useful to everyone with a phone or MP3 player.  To keep up with the electronic Joneses the system is upgradable to support new devices which provides the automotive industry something they haven’t previously had…the ability to adapt quickly!  New devices are released so frequently that it is impossible to certify them all.  The upgradeable plug-n-play nature of the system combined with the fact that it’s an independent system (not connected to important vehicle controls) makes connecting the latest devices safe and easy.

Since the beginning the Sync system has continued to add features and grow.  The introduction of basic news, traffic and navigation features is another first in the industry and Ford really raised the bar with the announcement of MyFord Touch at CES 2010.

In addition to analysis of the MyFord system we’ll be doing a deep dive on various features of both the Sync and MyFord systems (we haven’t event touched on the API yet!) to discuss their technology, providers and place in the market.  Check back often!

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