Ford, Microsoft and boy bands

Microsoft and America's number two automaker announced that a version of Microsoft's automotive platform will be available in 12 Ford Motor Company models next fall.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
3 min read
Ford's Sync logo
Ford's Sync logo CNET Networks/Sarah Tew

OK, it's Sync, not *NSYNC, and with its stylish logo it should be free of any associations from the band that made Justin Timberlake famous. Unlike the band, Sync also plays music. Microsoft has been trying to sell automakers on its automotive platform for a while and is really starting to gain ground. Last year at the Geneva Auto Show, Fiat showed off an installation of Microsoft's system, dubbed Blue&Me, in one of its cars. This year the software maker and America's number two automaker announced that a version of Microsoft's automotive platform will be available in 12 Ford Motor Company models next fall. And Ford intends to offer the system in every one of its cars for the 2009 model year.

Phone display from Sync
Sync display in Ford Edge CNET Networks/Sarah Tew

I saw Sync demonstrated in a Ford Edge. The Edge wasn't equipped with a navigation LCD--instead, Sync showed its messages on the standard monochrome radio display. When a Bluetooth phone was paired up with the car, Sync downloaded the phone's address book to the car. After that I could click a button on the steering wheel and tell Sync to call any name from the address book. The voice recognition in the system is good enough that it easily recognized my command. A Microsoft employee demonstrated how Sync could use text-to-speech to read text messages sent to a phone. Sync even translates common text abbreviations, such as reading out "Laughing out loud" when it encounters "LOL." However, I was told it wouldn't translate "WTF."

An iPod hooked up to Sync
An iPod hooked up to Sync CNET Networks/Sarah Tew

Bluetooth phone integration is cool and very useful in this implementation. In fact, Sync's features are better than those of any factory-installed system I've seen so far. And Microsoft claims it works with any Bluetooth phone on the market. But that's not the best part of the system. The Edge I saw the system demonstrated in had a USB port in the center console with an iPod plugged into it. With voice commands, I could say the name of any artist on the iPod's music library, and it would start playing that artist's music. Or I could call out a specific track, or genre, or album. Better yet, with the command "Similar music," Sync would find other songs its algorithms considered similar to the track I was listening to. A voice-command iPod playing through a car stereo is pretty cool, but would Microsoft throw that much support to Apple? No. Sync also works with the Zune and any MP3 player that has the Plays For Sure architecture, like my Creative Zen.

I'm sold. I want it. As I mentioned before, Ford will offer it in 12 models by the end of the year from its Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury brands. So far I know that the Ford Edge, Focus, and Five Hundred are definite choices. Personally, this system in a Lincoln MKZ (formerly Zephyr) with a THX stereo would make me want to own a Lincoln. The pricing for the Sync option isn't set, but I did hear "cheaper than you would expect" and "three digits." For hardware, the system uses a RISC processor and flash RAM, so I don't see why it should cost too much more than a flash MP3 player, except for the fact that it's a car option.