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Sync offers hands-free control

Microsoft and Ford are pushing Sync, an application based on Microsoft's Windows Automotive platform, that lets users control Bluetooth-enabled phones and portable music players with voice commands.

Microsoft and Ford bought a lot of advertisements on NFL football broadcasts over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend. The companies are pushing Sync, which is the latest outgrowth of Microsoft's decade-long effort to provide software for use in automobiles.

Ford Sync system

In this case, Microsoft might actually succeed. Simplicity is the key: unlike past scenarios floated for the Windows Automotive platform, Sync isn't intended to help control your car (leading to the inevitable blue screen jokes) or connect to the Internet or serve as the back-end for an in-car control panel. Instead, it gives you voice command over Bluetooth-enabled phones and portable music players--a scenario that any driver who's ever tried to manipulate an iPod on the road can appreciate. It also speaks--for example, it will read aloud text messages as they come into your Bluetooth-enabled phone.

Sync could also be helped by the fact that Ford's pushing it as part of its relatively inexpensive Focus line, where it'll come as part of the high-end Focus SES (which lists for under $17,000) or be available as a $395 option for other models. Many past Windows Automotive applications were available only on luxury vehicles.

The technology in Sync isn't all that new--Microsoft and Fiat launched a very similar system, Blue&Me, in 2006, and the underlying voice-recognition features were first seen in Microsoft's Voice Command software for the Pocket PC platform. I tried a demo version of Voice Command, and it seems to work well as long as you stick with fairly simple commands, like "Play the Beatles." A recent AutoWeek review of Sync gave kudos for the voice recognition features, although it criticized Sync for its robotic reading voice.

One interesting note: the Sync ads also served as Zune ads, as Microsoft's portable player appeared in every car. But yes, Sync does work with most iPods (not the Shuffle).