Microsoft and Ford have unveiled a new voice-activated communications and entertainment system which aims to transform the way drivers interact with their vehicles.
It's exceeding simple to illustrate the glacial pace of progress in communications and entertainment technology in the automobile industry with one simple fact.
In 2008 - in the UAE - it's still possible to buy a car with an in-dash cassette deck from virtually every mainstream automobile manufacturer.
It's an analogue technology that dates back to the 1960s - equivalent to the Mesozoic era in today's fast-moving technological landscape. It's also enormously hard to defend this carbuncle on the back of progress when one considers the giant strides that the automobile has made over the last decade alone in terms of packaging, safety, refinement, economy and environmental friendliness.
But this would be a somewhat blinkered viewpoint - because the automotive industry works in a completely different way from the world of IT, the latter of which tends to come out with innovations and then let the market decide their individual fates.
In the automotive space, innovation takes place at the highest end of the spectrum - high-end luxury vehicles which are usually driven by (or chauffeur) captains of industry - and then eventually filter to the mass market.
In this way, consumers can now expect as standard a full complement of safety kit including ABS braking technology and airbags on even the humblest of automobiles. It's not just safety; wireless central locking, automatic gearboxes and air-conditioning were once solely the preserve of the ultra-wealthy.
Ford and Microsoft clearly do not believe in maintaining the status quo. The titans of the automotive and IT worlds have launched a new ‘Sync' communications and entertainment package (see boxout for capabilities), which brings high-end connectivity to the Ford range of vehicles - and with the innovative voice control system developed by Microsoft, actually brings something new to the table.
Waldo Galan, managing director for Ford Middle East introduced the system at the launch of the Ford Flex at GITEX in October. It is expected to eventually be available as standard or an option on 90% of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products in the Middle East. Sync first became available in the US in late 2007 - and as Galan says, quickly grabbed the interest of consumers.
"Just to illustrate the potential impact of Sync - our demand when you do the research for the smaller cars in the US has shot through the roof, not only as a result of the fuel issue but also because of the attractiveness of the Sync system which they can get on vehicles like the Focus," he explains.
Sync represents the first major collaboration between an IT company and an carmaker to produce a technology package. Galan says Ford selected Microsoft for the partnership based on the considerable experience that the latter brought to the table.
"Microsoft had a software platform called Microsoft Auto which provided all the infrastructure we needed to bake into it the functionality we were looking for. Obviously it was a very strong collaborative process in the development and the programming of the system. They provided us the right platform and we also did a lot of proprietary development ourselves. We believe the resulting product has a tremendous amount of expansion capabilities," he says.
Vimal Sethi, developer and platform group director for Microsoft Gulf, goes into more detail about how the two firms built the system: "Development started about two years ago. We wanted to bring some of the most innovative solutions that we have in other parts of the world to this market. We know this region has a huge appetite for innovation. We saw GITEX as an opportunity to launch not only a new car but this innovation as well.
"We are a platform company. In the old days, the objective was a PC on every single desktop. Now, a Ford in every garage - why not? We know that it's a brand that's been very successful and reaches all types of consumers whether they're high-end or not," he continues.
One of the more interesting aspects of the partnership is that Ford picked Microsoft - which, outside of its Xbox and Zune brand, is not known for either its telecommunication or audio expertise. Sethi explains that Ford were looking for an open platform."Today, if you look at what Sync has to offer, you could plug in your iPod, Zune or whatever music device that you have already invested in. It's compatible with 95% of all mobile phones. Why go with Symbian or Nokia and say it's only for Nokia phones? That doesn't make sense," he says.
"And if you look at the solution itself, it's pretty low cost. When I bought a car - and I have kids - I thought about what was important for me and what things I needed in the car. Sometimes it can be very expensive to have an integrated system that syncs with your devices. We wanted to bring something that we can offer to everyone," adds Microsoft's Sethi.
Sync's availability is one of the highlights of the system - unlike other manufacturers which limit similar systems to the high-end model ranges, Galan says Ford's product will be available to all.
"We're going to start offering the Sync system at every level of our product range, with the exception of products that we use for basic fleets and so forth. An individual ordering a Focus Trend in the future will be able to have the Sync as an option in there. As we go upmarket in terms of the series, we'll make it more of a standard package," he states.
"It's also fully upgradeable. As customers buy their products, regardless of the timeframe when they acquire it, we will able to upgrade their software to further functionality going forward. That's a major feature for us," adds Galan.
The more eagle-eyed among ACN readers might at this point mention that Sync is far from new to the automobile world, having first been announced at the North American International Auto Show in January 2007. Why then, has this system taken so long to arrive in the Middle East?
Galan reveals that the system needed to be adapted to local conditions: "We did a lot of testing. The Sync platform is currently language capable for English, French and Spanish. In our markets over here, Arabic is obviously the primary language. Secondly, we are such a mixed bag of nationalities, accents and cultures. We wanted to make sure that when the system became available, it would be able to recognise the different accents of the people here as they spoke in English to it.
"We also wanted to ensure that the majority of the devices that we would be pairing with Sync would be supported by the technology. It took us several months, during which we brought a couple of engineers out here. We did a lot of testing - we had to go out and buy all the latest and greatest phones and MP3 players. We also had to bring people into our offices and have them play with the system so we could figure out if the system could communicate with them adequately," he continues.
"After we got all the data, we went "After we got all the data, we went back and made some final adjustments, then rolled it into a specific model year. The first product to launch was obviously the Flex. All our 2009 products from North America will have Sync included in the package," emphasises Galan.
Accents are just one piece of the localisation puzzle; the other aspect is ensuring that the system can understand users in a different language. With the number of Arabic dialects available in the Gulf, this can be a daunting task, but Galan says the firm is already well along in the process of localising Sync.
"There's no other system in the world that works other than one where you have to record into your device the phrase that you want it to react to. Our system is a little bit more complicated than that because while it works with Bluetooth, it takes your voice command and converts it to code, searches for the codes inside the device and then provides the device with the command based on your voice activation.
To program Arabic - just like we did for Spanish and French - into it is a bit of a challenge and you have to pick just the right Arabic dialect," he explains.
"We're anticipating it will take another 18 months or so. We've already kicked off the development work and funded it. The platform is already there - but you're talking about somewhere in excess of US$500,000 just for the development work. It's not a cheap undertaking. It's more the time and the actual details of making sure that you have just the right Arabic functionality in the system," Galan says.
Updates to the Sync system are delivered through the built-in USB port that also connects to portable audio players. However, cars have much longer shelf lives than MP3 players, so there is a very real risk that the connection technology might no longer exist to use Sync in the future - especially when one considers that USB was in its infancy a decade ago.
Galan is guardedly optimistic: "I wouldn't know how to speculate on that. If the ports changed in the future, we may run the risk of becoming obsolete or we may be able to provide some kind of adapters that goes through what we have in existing systems. At this point, I don't anticipate an obsolescence issue in the short term."
In terms of future extension to the system, Microsoft's Sethi says he received many expressions of interest at GITEX: "People asked us what else we can do with the platform. One of the things that you'll see in the future is how do we integrate things like text messaging, e-mail, calendaring and so on.
You can imagine an IT professional basically managing and being connected to the work environment through the car. You can be driving and ask: What's on my calendar today? Move a meeting. Call this person and send him an e-mail. All those things are going to be possible in the future.
"From a platform perspective, we've gone pretty far. The platform is about getting something that works in a car - that's where the car industry need to help us in terms of getting the approval from the relevant standards and organisations to say how we should integrate this in the car, what are the testing that needs to be involved and so on - so that we can deliver all these features to the user," he continues.
"It's really up to Ford, Microsoft and all our partners to take this platform and say: ‘This is Version 1. This is where we want to take it. We're offering this opportunity to our partner ecosystem to say - think about what's possible with this. Here's a platform - go and take it to the next level,' concludes Sethi.
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