[THIS is a monster post with lots of photos - so give your browser some spinning wheel time!]
GearDiary was invited to join traditional media and automobile journalists to experience the launch of the redesigned Ford Focus and Ford Sync™. Hosted in Seattle, Washington by Ford Motor Company and Microsoft, the program included significant drive time with the Focus vehicle, demonstration of the Sync technology and a visit to the Microsoft campus to view the House of the Future. Geekness and coolness personified .
Sync is the newest mobile technology to emerge from the Ford-Microsoft relationship. Debuting in the 2008 Ford Focus automobile, Ford Sync is a fully integrated, flash memory-based system that allows the driver to use their Bluetooth phones hands-free. Additionally, music players such as the Zune or iPod can be controlled via voice commands and buttons mounted on the steering wheel.
When the email came from Judie to attend the Ford-Microsoft presentation, the offer was very compelling. Having the opportunity to test out new technology that merges personal content in a redesigned vehicle is a rare experience that was hard to pass up. Subsequently, there was the short notice scramble to rearrange work schedules, carve out some personal time and book the flight from Nashville to Seattle.
The media people working with Ford were prompt to make all of the travel arrangements the next morning. Four days later on a Monday evening, I was on a nonstop flight to Seattle, a part of the United States that I’ve never visited. My son Gary and family are based in Tacoma, Washington serving with the Air Force at McChord AFB and they absolutely love the area.
The next morning, I met up with Maggie Fox and Collin Douma of Social Media Group based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada who assisted in assembling the journalists on behalf of Ford to participate on the 2008 Ford Focus All Media Drive Program. They “help companies connect with their internal and external audiences by strategically leveraging the power of emerging social media channels.” Smart people!
Ford, as with other large corporate entitles, are realizing than the new media – video journalists, bloggers, online web sites – all have a collective influence to engage consumers with their products and services. There would be waves of journalists arriving over the next couple of days to test drive the redesigned Ford Focus and speak with executives from Ford and Microsoft about the Sync technology.
This particular Tuesday, I quickly found myself as the only “new media,” blogger, online, technology writer present. Most of the media present were seasoned automotive journalists who have been extensively writing about cars for decades. I felt like a fish out of water!
We were shuttled over to the Seattle Airport Marriott to pick up additional arriving journalists.
After signing a Ford Liability form and a Microsoft Confidentiality Agreement from Tony and Lisa, we received our nametags.
One crusty journalist that I had coffee with quickly pooh pooh the whole technological aspects of the Ford Sync. He was frustrated with learning how to set the AM stations on his car radio. Not to be judgmental, but most folks will criticize things they don’t understand especially with technology and gadgets. Placed in a defensive posture, I shared about technological advances like sharing photographs, medical breakthroughs in diagnoses to $100 laptops for children. Digging myself deeper in the discussion, I threw out the GPS, ABS and Fuel Injection card. Bah Humbug! No more exhaust fumes for you my friend!
Thankfully, it was time to pair up with a journalist to drive an assigned route to the Bell Harbor Conference Center for the presentation by Ford executives. I was the odd man out, kind of like the last guy picked for junior high school sports. Can’t blame them, as these seasoned auto guys all knew each other from different car manufacturer’s test drive program events.
I hooked up with David Goodspeed, a really cool auto journalist with even a cooler last name from Dallas, Texas. David writes for a group of community newspapers and has driven enough cars to discern what the typical consumer is looking for. We ended up having a blast talking about all kinds of stuff and sharing the same musical tastes like YES and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.
I took the driver seat in the 2007 Ford Focus. David was the shotgun navigator using the preprinted route map. “So, we’re doing this old school,” was my first comment. I had become so accustomed to using GPS as a means to travel in new cities. When the use of technology such as GPS goes mainstream, there’s an expectation and dependency upon these devices to assist with our increasing mobile and digital lifestyle.
Fortunately, Ford Motor Company uses as standard protocol drive maps. These route maps are scripted with precise mile markers aided by visual triangle markers marked with the Ford logo along the route. Each route is designed to experience different driving conditions. Roadways include freeways, stop and go scenarios, winding roads, some with bumps and potholes to tunnels and bridges for quality “seat” time. Boy howdy, we got some serious seat time! At one point in the day, I had to get out of the car because I got all the leather seating my dress trousers could stand. Note to go with the cloth seats option on the 2008 Ford Focus.
Five minutes into our drive time, we stopped for a quick photo of Safeco Field and Quest Field, home of the Seattle Mariners and Seahawks professional sports teams. I always appreciate a riding companion that doesn’t mind stopping for photos and roadside artifacts.
We arrive an hour later at the Bell Harbor Conference Center to view the new 2008 Ford Focus models, receive our notebook, a cool multicolor lighted pen and a flash drive with additional documentation.
Around the back of the customs facility, we did the vehicle walk around of the new Ford Focus vehicles due in Ford showrooms later this year.
Beautiful Puget Sound in the background with ferry boats.
The new models were beautiful staged against the backdrop of Puget Sound, perfect for photo opportunities. With a redesigned look, the cars really looked sporty. We had to wait until the Roundtable Discussion and lunch with Ford executives before getting behind the wheel.
After the photo sessions, I received the Ford Sync demo.
PART THREE: The Ford Sync Demonstration
Here’s a portion of the press release:
“Powered by Microsoft Auto software, the Sync is Ford’s new fully integrated, voice-activated in-car communications and entertainment system for mobile phones and digital music playrs.”
• Sync will be available in 12 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products beginning this calendar year.
• Sync is the newest technology to emerge from the Ford-Microsoft relationship.
• Users can access their mobile phone or digital music player – including genre, album, artist and song title – via voice commands.
• Names and numbers in a mobile phone’s address book are wirelessly and automatically transferred to the vehicle.
• Sync can host nearly any digital media player, including the Apple iPod®, Microsoft Zune, PlaysForSure players and most USB storage devices.
Microsoft has partnered with Ford to introduced a package version of Microsoft Auto, “a powerful, scalable, and flexible software platform and reference hardware design that helps the auto industry deliver rich integrated in-car communication, entertainment, navigation and information systems faster, easier and at a lower cost.”
32-bit 400 MHz ARM11 processor
256 MB NAND flash memory, 64 MB DDRAM
Vehicle bus interface
Microphone for voice interaction with system
USB 2.0 host connections
Cell phone module capable
GPS receiver capable
More info about the Microsoft Auto software platform available at this link and a datasheet that we recieved while visiting Microsoft the next day.
and below the main audio controls.
There are two 12V power outlets, an auxiliary 3.5mm jack and a single USB port for plugging in a Zune, iPod or Flash Drive. Sync will charge the player as long as the cord is plugged into the USB port. No special USB cord is needed. The only down side is there is not much of a shelf or slot to hold the phone or the player. However, while we were driving, the incline on the console kept the devices from falling on the floor. I would have like to have a hidden compartment to stow away the devices in the Ford Focus while still connected to the USB port.
All the basics of using Sync is located on the steering wheel. Pressing the MEDIA button will prompt Sync to say, “Please say a command” – just say PHONE. To answer an incoming call, press the Telephone Button and begin speaking. To end a call, press the Telephone Button and hold for two seconds. To exit the phone mode, press and hold press the Telephone Button when not on a active call.
Sync Features from the press release: My comments will be in blue italics
• Voice-activated, hands-free calling: Simply press the “Push to Talk” button on the steering wheel, and then say the name of the person you wish to call. Sync will automatically connect with the names in the mobile phone’s contact list.
Sync is smart enough to ask a specific number; if I said “CALL Judie Lipsett,” the female Sync voice would chime and ask, “office,” “home,” “mobile”. I would reply “mobile” and Sync would begin dialing.
Once the command is given to call “Dave Sculley,” Sync will display the status on the center mounted control panel…
• Uninterrupted connections: No need to hang up in the middle of a cell phone call as you enter your vehicle. Simply touch the Telephone Button on the steering wheel, and Sync will instantly connect to a Bluetooth phone.
We were using a Motorola RAZR for our demos. Here’s a link to Bluetooth compatibly phones that include the iPhone, Samsung, Motorola and LG phones. The Palm Treos are conspicuously absent! Sync can wirelessly paired up to six different mobile phones.
• Audible text messages: Sync will convert text messages from your phone to audio and read it out loud. The system is even smart enough to translate such commonly used text messaging expressions as “LOL” and . You can choose to reply from any of 20 predefined responses.
What is cool from a safety standpoint is text messaging is turned off at a certain speed. The Ford rep said Sync is smart enough to know how many glances it takes to text message a response. Predefined messages include: Where R you?, Call me, Yes, No.
• Advanced calling features: Sync includes the same features offered on mobile phones, including caller ID, call waiting, conference calling, a caller log, a list of contacts, a signal strength icon, and a phone battery charge icon – all conveniently located on the radio’s display screen.
• Ring tone support: For supported phones, Sync will play personal ring tones. If you’ve configured unique ring tones to identify specific callers, Sync will automatically play those, too.
• Automatic phonebook transfer: Sync will automatically and wirelessly transfer all the names and numbers in a mobile phonebook.
Sync will automatically download your contacts in the phonebook, by activating Auto Download. With the Auto Download I can call new contacts entered into my phone just before I stepped into the Ford Focus.
• Voice-activated music: Browse the music collection on your digital media player, mobile phone or USB drive by genre, album, artist and song title using simple voice commands, such as “Play genre Rock,” “Play (artist),” or “Play Track (song title).”
I plugged in my iPod and it took maybe ten minutes to grab all of the meta data from the 7000 titles and podcasts stored.
I just gave the command PLAY ARTIST BEATLES, PLAY TRACK “A Day In The Life” and just like that, the music came pumping through the sound system. Having a subwoofer in the trunk was the icing on the cake when the strings kicked in. Ahh, the Beatles.
• Instant voice recognition: Sync’s advanced voice recognition technology means when you’re ready to use your phone or digital music player, just speak simple voice commands.
Ford Sync is speaker independent, which means no training from the user to recognize the simple commands like PHONE to access hands free phone mode, USB to access the device connected to the USB port (no need to say iPod or Zune), HELP which audibly lists the options in a specific mode and is always available, CANCEL which cancels the requested action, READ MESSAGE to hear the most recently received text message, VOICE SETTINGS to access the voice settings menu, BLUETOOTH AUDIO which accessess the music stored on a mobile phone and SYNC which returns the system to the main menu.
When I was calling Judie, I was using the RAZR that Ford had supplied on the test drive vehicle. I was reading out loud and slowly the telephone number from my Samsung Blackjack. Because my speech was slow, thinking that I had to dumb down to speak to Sync, it would quickly ask me if 1 – 5 5 5 was the number I wanted to dial. NO! After a couple of tries, I just rattled the full number off at rapid speed. Sync captured all the numbers, and verifying DIAL, I reached Judie. The phone call was crisp and clear. David who was driving at the time and myself had a conference call while driving somewhere in the mountains without any signal degradation.
• Multilingual intelligence: Sync is fluent in English, French and Spanish.
I’m sure that custom voiceovers will be available in the near future. I like hearing Dennis Hopper or Mr. T “Turn Left Fool!” on my TomTom GPS. The soothing voice of HAL 2008 saying “No Comprende?” would be awesome.
Here a 2 minute clip of Sync in action. So what did I think? Considering that luxury cars have some features available already like Bluetooth connectivity, or jacks for iPods, Ford and Microsoft has come up with the killer app in the way we manage our content. From the mobile phone with our contact lists, individualized ringtones, and music playlists on our digital music players in a integrated package like the Ford Sync is pretty amazing for several reasons.
(1) Managing our content with a built in software platform means we can transport our digital lifestyle in a car that happens to be fun to drive.
(2) Debuting Ford Sync in an inexpensive small car with big car features is a great move to attract young buyers. The 2008 Ford Focus starts at $14.695. The fully equipped model we drove listed at $20,265.
(3) The Ford Sync comes standard on the Focus SES models, and is available as an option on the Focus SE model for $395.00 MSRP. Considering the price, passing on the AM / FM / CD player configuration for me is a no brainer. When we got tired listening to the iPod, SIRIUS Satellite radio was awaiting.
(4) The FM transmitters used to receive music from a Zune or iPod will be no longer necessary once the Sync technology rolls out beyond the exclusivity period with the 12 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models this year.
Another feature to enhance the digital lifestyle is the ambient lighting system on the 2008 Focus. The driver or front-seat passenger can change the light inside the cupholders and in the front and rear footwells, choosing from seven different colors, including red, orange, blue, indigo, violet, green and yellow, simply by cycling through a dash-mounted switch.
PART FOUR: The Ford Focus drive
After the demonstration, the Executive Roundtable discussion with Ford executives was informative. Making the case for the introducing the Ford Sync in a redesigned Ford Focus was appealing to the shifting tastes, lifestyle choices and demographics of the younger car buyer. The small car market is making a rebound, so they felt the timing was right to introduce Ford Sync as the centerpiece of an affordable, sporty car.
Beth Donovan, Ford Product Market Manager with Mark Spain, Director of Microsoft Automobile Business Unit
The following pictures are a illustrative progression of rapiding changing technology that Sheryl Connelly, Ford Manager of Global Trends and Futuring discussed. (Ms. Connelly has the coolest job at Ford)
Some quick notes: Small does not mean cheap. People want cars that are great to look at, inside and out, comfortable to sit in and fun to drive with the full compliment of safety features. My impression was Ford was being intentional to place as many big car features in a small car package at a reasonable list price. The new BIG is now SMALL with BIG car features throughout which makes for a good value proposition for new car buyers or those looking to downsize.
THE FINAL WRAP: Off to the wild blue yonder...
David Goodspeed and I took off in the 2008 Ford Focus to get more seat time while seeing the beautiful Washington state scenery. Auto journalists drive a full day on these outings and at times keep a new car to review for a full week. My role was to play wingman / navigator and play with the Ford Sync.
The car was fun to drive and pretty quiet inside due to the new acoustic windshield and thicker side glass in the front doors.
The car had great pickup with a 140-horsepower 2.0-liter, Duratec 20 dual-overhead-cam (DOHC), inline 4-cylinder engine. One big thing I noticed was the handling of the car through the winding roads, with no abrupt shifting in the automatic transmission.
We made our way to Snoqualmie Falls to see a spectacular 276-foot waterfall.
After switching drivers, we headed out to Remlington Farms, located 45 minutes east of Seattle for our next designated driving spot to eat some awesome organic strawberry rhubarb pie.
While there, we got a demo of the trunk capacity of the Ford Focus.
For our final thirty-seven mile leg back to the W Hotel in Seattle, David happened to catch Vintage Motors out of the corner of his eye. Car guys are like that! We stopped in and Fred was kind enough to let us gawk at all of the project cars for sale. We even saw a motorcycle powered by a Boeing jet engine.
The day was jammed packed with scripted driving times and presentations along the way. There was zero time to do any sightseeing, so everything I wanted to see had to be done along the route with the camera on top of the roof:
The next morning, we were up at six am for breakfast. With bags packed, we drove our final test leg to the sprawling campus of Microsoft taking the very long way route to get more seat time with the Ford Focus. I wanted to take a picture of the three story Halo 3 banner, but Microsoft security wouldn’t allow it. Besides, it was too early in the morning to be Tazered – just kidding! So, I got no photos other than this:
After a quick talk by Microsoft executives how they partnered with Ford and implemented the Sync technology in 2 short years, it was time to wrap up. I ask if there were any plans to provide third party solutions for add on features such as voice activated directional navigation, or other new features. “Not at this time” was the short and sweet answer.
We got an abbreviated private tour of Microsoft’s House of the Future. Unable to take notes or photos, here’s a link that best conveys what I saw first hand.
Home, Sweet Futuristic Home by Andy Peterson, special to MSN Tech & Gadgets.
Look for the Ford Focus and the Sync technology to make a big splash with marketing on college campuses, MTV, and social networking sites. Ford dealers will be well versed on touting Ford Sync. The Sync technology works well and in my mind will be the defacto in-car standard to enjoy our digital lifestyle in a seamless mobile environment.
Thanks for riding along!