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Computers on wheels: cars getting smarter than PCs and smartphones

Posting in Architecture

More evidence that our computers on wheels -- formerly known as automobiles -- are reaching critical mass in terms of global connectivity. Ford just announced that it has delivered more than five million vehicles with its SYNC connectivity system, jointly developed with Microsoft five years ago. And the company envisions this connectivity as the gateway for the car becoming the "smartest device you will ever own."

“SYNC has helped us evolve as an automaker, to think and act more like a technology company, with a new level of openness and access that has forever changed how we look at our business and respond to our customers,” according to Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president, Ford Research and Innovation. "We have turned the car into a platform with extensive opportunities for developers to work with us to continue to add value through new features delivered at the speed consumers now expect. With more than 1 billion smartphones now in service around the world, we expect mobile connectivity will continue to be the foundational element of our strategy going forward.”

SYNC was designed to adapt and change with new technology developments. While cars and trucks typically stay on the road for more than 10 years on average, people often replace their consumer electronics every couple of years to keep pace with the latest advances in technology. The SYNC development team created an architecture based on the Windows Embedded Automotive platform that supports open protocols such as USB and Bluetooth that enables most devices to be connected for media playback and communications.

When SYNC was first announced on Jan. 7, 2007 at the International CES, the presentation featured the iPod, Motorola RAZR flip-phone and Palm TREO smartphone. Just two days later, Apple began a mobile phone revolution and the beginning of the app economy with the announcement of the original iPhone. When customers began driving the first car available with SYNC, the 2008 Focus, in fall of that year, most were using SYNC to make hands-free calls using their feature phones and play back music from iPods with voice commands powered by Nuance voice recognition technology.

Five years on, Ford points out, there are smartphones powered by a diverse range of platforms including iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone mobile operating systems. "With on-board storage, processing power that rivals desktop computers from five years ago and fast wireless data connections, these phones still work with those original SYNC-equipped vehicles," the automaker -- er, computer maker -- claims.

The system also supports new available capabilities on most Ford vehicles such as AppLink, 911 Assist, Vehicle Health Report and SYNC Services, a cloud-based service network that provides traffic reports, turn-by-turn directions, business search, news and sports scores and movie listings.

“Now, it’s clear that building an open, upgradable connectivity platform has been key to the success of SYNC because it has allowed us to stay relevant to the consumer,” said Mascarenas. “With available SYNC, Ford vehicles are no longer stuck with the technology built in at the factory, they can keep pace with the latest consumer trends through simple software updates.”

Cloud connectivity, on-board sensors and data access are creating an intelligent vehicle experience. Other advances, such as natural language processing and machine learning, could help SYNC provide a more natural interaction between car and driver, enabling a driving experience that’s more personalized and convenient. “The car is a rich source of real-time data and when combined with the processing power available in the cloud, it could become the smartest device you will ever own,” adds Mascarenas.

(Video and thumbnail photo: Ford.)

— By on November 5, 2012, 11:51 PM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure