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  • 12.11.14

Why Ford Dumping Microsoft’s Automotive Software Was Inevitable–And Probably Long Overdue

Years ago, the carmaker took an early lead in infotainment. That helps explain why it’s now forced to start all over again.

Why Ford Dumping Microsoft’s Automotive Software Was Inevitable–And Probably Long Overdue
[Photo: Flickr user Dmitry Alexeenko]

Ford is announcing a new infotainment system for its Ford and Lincoln vehicles today. Among its features: a streamlined, tablet-like interface with gestures such as swiping and pinch-to-zoom; smarter voice recognition; easier access to apps like Pandora and Spotify; Siri support for iPhone users; and the ability to update itself over your Wi-Fi network as your car sits in the garage or on the driveway. Some models will get the new system in 2015, and the company expects it to be available across all of its lines by the end of 2016.

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Its name–Sync 3–suggests continuity, evolution, and close ties to the systems which preceded it. But in fact, Sync 3 isn’t the third version of anything.

Ford’s new Sync 3 interfacePhoto: courtesy of Ford

Previous versions of Sync were created in collaboration with Microsoft and based on an operating system currently known as Windows Embedded Automotive. In a move which first surfaced as a rumor last February, Sync 3 ditches Microsoft entirely in favor of QNX, an industrial-strength operating system owned by BlackBerry. (It also provides the underpinnings for BlackBerry 10 phones such as the Passport.)

Ford would rather that people focus on Sync 3’s new features than on corporate intrigue involving its software partners. In fact, its press release about Sync 3 mentions neither Microsoft nor QNX–a pretty striking omission given that it once trumpeted its partnership with Microsoft. (Ford vehicles with existing flavors of Sync even have little plaques mounted on their dashboards touting Microsoft’s involvement.)

Even if Ford isn’t anxious to talk about it, the switch to QNX is an eminently sensible move. The software already has over 50% market share in the automotive business, counting BMW, Chrysler, GM, Honda, Mercedes, Toyota, and others among its customers. Ford is pretty much adopting an industry standard.

Sync 3’s new app screen

But I cheerfully concede that I’m not receiving this news as a calm, objective reporter. A year ago, I bought a Ford Focus hatchback with MyFord Touch, which has been Ford’s top-of-the-line system until now. The only way that I and other owners of current versions of Sync will be able to get Sync 3 is with an entire new Ford or Lincoln wrapped around it: The new system, which replaces the resistive touch screen of previous Sync systems with a more responsive screen based on capacitive technology, will not be available as an upgrade.

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The Beginning Of The End

Ford connected-car honcho Don Butler took pains to emphasize to me that the Microsoft-based versions of Sync have not received their final update. “Microsoft has worked with us very closely improving the experience of MyFord Touch,” he says. “We continue to work together.”

Still, with the shift to QNX for future versions, it’s clear that the current version is a dead platform walking. Some models will get Sync 3 starting in 2015, and the entire Ford and Lincoln lines will have it by the end of 2016.

By moving to QNX, Ford is playing catch-up with its car electronics, But it’s not because the company didn’t see the revolution coming. Indeed, it deserves more credit than any other car manufacturer for making such features approachable and affordable. When the first Sync system was announced back in 2007, infotainment was pricey, exotic, and relegated to higher-end vehicles. Sync took it mainstream, and it was other manufacturers that scrambled to respond.

Once Ford settled on Microsoft technology, it seemed logical enough that 2010’s MyFord Touch system–the first sweeping update to the Sync platform, with a fancy touch-screen interface–continued to be based on embedded Windows software. But from the start, it felt like MyFord was trying to do next-generation things on a last-generation operating system.

Even after multiple updates, the MyFord Touch experience falls far short of the ones which companies such as Apple and Google provide on smartphones and tablets. You need to know exactly how to tap the screen to get it to respond. You have to remember the precise spoken phrases that will make the voice-recognition system obey your commands. You gird yourself for bugs, some of which are truly strange–like the one which inexplicably prevented me from turning off my radio.

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None of the problems are insurmountable: I use the system every time I’m in my car, and find it useful. But I never shake the nagging feeling that I’m working for MyFord Touch as much as it’s working for me.

And in a lapse which I don’t understand, Ford never got around to giving MyFord Touch its AppLink feature, which lets Sync control apps such as Pandora on iPhones and Android phones. It’s still only available for Sync in its lower-end incarnation. Ford says it’s still contemplating the possibility of bringing AppLink to MyFord Touch, but at this point I can’t imagine it’s the likeliest outcome.

Basically, MyFord Touch quickly became an albatross for Ford. Even in otherwise favorable reviews of Ford vehicles, it often came up as a downside. And the worst coverage was brutal. (Consumer Reportsheadline: “Why the MyFord Touch Control System Stinks.”) The gripes subsided eventually, but they’ve never gone away entirely.

Ford’s current MyFord Touch interface

(To be fair, Ford is far from the only car company with a troublesome infotainment system. Remind me sometime to tell you about the Porsche Cayenne I tried which kept deciding to talk to me in French, and couldn’t remember which side of the Golden Gate Bridge it was on.)

Replacing one operating system with a different one is such a big, gnarly deal that manufacturers of other sorts of devices do it only when they really have no other choice, as when Apple ditched its crumbling Mac OS 9 for the rock-solid, Unix-based OS X. Ford couldn’t have made the decision lightly. But it may have been the only way to give its cars a modern, reliable digital experience.

Which is why I think the company made the right decision for itself and its customers. Even though the Ford owner in me will feel a twinge of melancholy every time I’m reminded of all the neat things that Sync 3 can do and my car cannot.

Here’s Ford’s own video preview of Sync 3:

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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