Our eyes, ears, and hands are all over our mobile devices. We're so attached to our cell phones, smartphones, and multimedia players that most of us couldn't move through the day without one or all of them.
When we're in our cars, our devices come with us, but until now, they have not been fully integrated with our vehicles. While automobiles offer the possibility of larger displays, they also present a new set of challenges to developers, since there are limits to how much information users can process while driving.
Applications must be built so that drivers can use them at a glance -- while keeping their hands on the wheel, and eyes on the road. Designing an intuitive mobile computing experience within confines of this environment is no easy task. But the Ford Motor Company in partnership with Microsoft has taken a crack at it.
The result is the Ford Sync, the first legitimate foray into this space. It is described as a "fully integrated voice-activated, in-car communications and entertainment system for mobile phones and digital music players." More importantly, the technology has caught the consumer's attention.
The Sync landed a spot on Popular Mechanics' coveted "Top 10 Most Brilliant Gadgets of 2007" and received a "Best of What's New Award" for 2008 from Popular Science. Ford dealers claim the technology is drawing customers into showrooms for demos. And contrary to a sharp downturn throughout the automotive industry, Ford reports an increase in sales of the Focus, the model most associated with the Sync. The company also reports that Sync-equipped Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles sell nearly twice as fast as those without.
Ford claims that its Sync-equipped vehicles, like the Focus shown here, sell nearly twice as fast as those without.
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Ford Sync's primary functions are to enable voice control of the MP3 player and a more seamless integration for Bluetooth phones. It has a few additional bells and whistles, such as its ability to read SMS messages, but the 2008 version does not include some of the basics you'd expect, such as voice input to a GPS system or the ability to activate environmental controls through voice command. In fact, despite a solid initial implementation and highly effective marketing campaign, perhaps the most striking feature of the Ford Sync is how clearly it reveals the immaturity of the user interface in the automotive environment.
Velle Kolde, Product Manager of Microsoft's Automotive Business Unit, acknowledges the product is in an early phase (see video demo), but stresses another one of Ford Sync's attributes -- it is updatable.