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January 7, 2007

CES: Have you driven a Microsoft lately?

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano at 12:02 AM

Ford and Microsoft have teamed up to put software in vehicles that links a driver's cellphone and digital-music player to the car.

The hardware and software combination, called SYNC, will be available in a dozen of the automaker's 2008 vehicles. Ford aims to have it in all of its cars and trucks by the 2009 model year.

The partnership is being announced as part of the North American International Auto Show kicking off this weekend in Detroit and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

SYNC, based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, will automatically establish a wireless link with Bluetooth-equipped phones brought into the car. The phone's function -- making and receiving calls, selecting contacts from the address book -- will then be accessible through the car using speaker phone, a readout on the center console, voice commands and controls on the steering wheel.

Velle Kolde, product manager in Microsoft's automotive business unit, said the system's voice-command capabilities are state of the art. It requires no training, he said, and will understand English, Spanish and French Canadian. It will read text messages -- including emoticons -- in concert with some higher-end phones.

SYNC cars will also have a USB port to connect iPods and other portable music players. Players can be fully accessed and controlled in the same way as the phones. Kolde said the system supports virtually all players and music file formats.

This is a high-profile win for Microsoft's 10-year-old automotive business unit. Kolde said it represents an effort by the company to put its software in more places beyond the home and office.

"There was a lot of opportunity in the car that hadn't really been addressed so we're very excited about what we're announcing with Ford," he said.

The business unit, part of the mobile and imbedded devices group, has about 120 employees and benefits from the work of several other groups that make the base operating systems that it optimizes for use in automobiles.

Ford and Microsoft did not disclose the financial terms of their agreement. Microsoft did a similar partnership with Fiat in July 2004. And Kolde said Microsoft is open to working with other automakers.

The company's products are already in lots of cars today, but the deals have been lower profile for Microsoft.

"We power a lot of the screen-based navigation systems that are available in many of the vehicles today, although you wouldn't know it because there's no branding on it," Kolde said.

Not so with SYNC. Gary Jablonski, manager of Ford's "infotainment" systems product development, said consumers would be very aware that there's Microsoft software under the hood.

"Vehicles equipped with the system include promotional badges with the brand name SYNC along with the word Microsoft," he said.

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