Microsoft SYNC-ing Up with Auto Industry

July 29, 2008

Microsoft hopes to SYNC up with the auto industry. The software giant's high-tech infotainment system has been one of the few big success stories for Ford Motor Co. this past year, drawing in the sort of high-tech-savvy buyers who might normally steer over to an import brand.

Now with Ford about to lose its brief exclusive on the SYNC system, Microsoft is ready to make a major push into the auto industry, the Detroit News reports. The Washington-based software company "will announce a massive new investment in its automotive business unit," the paper reports. And it has tapped Detroit native and Microsoft veteran Tom Phillips to head the operation.

"We know that things are tough for the auto industry, but it's the perfect time to make this investment," said Phillips. "There are new customers coming into the market and they are looking for new experiences."

There's been a general trend toward increasing the level of electronics in the average car. High-line manufacturers, such as BMW, with its complex iDrive system, can have more than $10,000 in silicon-controlled systems, ranging from engine, chassis, and safety controls to navigation and in-car entertainment. Even low-end vehicles are being offered with high-tech hardware.

Part of the challenge is to come up with technology that not only offers a wide array of features, but that is also easy to use. BMW has been repeatedly faulted for the complexity of iDrive, and plans a complete remake of the system shortly. Microsoft, however, has won kudos for SYNC, which offers the driver a variety of ways to issue a command, including one of the best voice control systems on the market. Ford recently launched a second-generation SYNC system that adds such features as traffic and weather, along with the ability to track restaurants, movie schedules, and gas prices.

Using SYNC as a come-on in its entry-level sedan, Ford has reportedly driven up the average transaction price on its Focus by $1,000 over the past year. As it expands availability, he automaker expects to sell about 1 million vehicles equipped with SYNC by the end of 2009.

But as with much of the technology provided by outside suppliers, manufacturers like Ford are generally granted limited exclusivity. And Microsoft is already beginning to license the SYNC system to other manufacturers, including the Korean upstart Hyundai, which expects to bring its own version to market within the next several years.

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