As automobiles become more like traveling computers than merely vehicles for commuters, Ford is switching gears. On Thursday the auto giant announced that it is dumping one of the world's biggest software players, Microsoft, aiming its next in-dash systems at consumers more addicted to smartphones than PCs.
An early champion of connected cars, Ford introduced its first Sync system back in 2007, partnering with Microsoft. Since then, Sync has been rolled out in various iterations in roughly 10 million cars worldwide, according to the company. Some of those systems have been simple, text-based displays that relied solely on a driver's connected smartphone to get directions and information. As the company's systems advanced, however, larger touch screens, more buttons, more voice controls, and more apps were added -leading to more features that consumers wanted but that they also found added layers of complexity.
Now Ford is hitting the reset button for latest version, Sync 3, working with QNX, a Canadian software firm with deep roots in the automotive business and, coincidentally, owned by Blackberry, the company that originally spawned the smartphone revolution.
Related: Why Blackberry Is Not Quite Dead Yet
"The biggest thing is that we are continuing to build on the legacy we've established with Sync, giving consumers interactivity with their devices, safely," said Don Butler, Ford's executive director, connected vehicle and services, in an interview ahead of Thursday’s announcement.
In our discussion, Butler laid out some of the most significant changes Ford has been working on - from built-in navigation to brighter screens. Addressing some of the complaints from current owners, the company said the new version would be quicker to respond and offer improved voice recognition that will understand more natural language instructions: no more having to memorize specific commands. It will also feature bigger icons on its touch screen; an 8-inch display will be part of the full package.
Ford already boasts one of the most extensive list of in-car apps, including Spotify, Pandora, Stitcher, NPR One, SiriusXM Radio and iHeartRadio. Ford hopes the new system will make it even easier for iPhone and Android smart phone owners to launch compatible programs in the car - and keep their hands off of their phones.
While Sync 3 will not include a built-in cellular connection as standard (luxury modeked in the driver's garage. You'll no longer have to download software to a USB drive or make a trip to the dealer just to update the infotainment features.
Ford was reticent about which car model will be the first to include Sync 3 next year, but the company did say it would finish rolling out Sync 3 across its entire lineup - from compacts to pickups - in the U.S by the end of 2016. That's an ambitious and momentous technology change for one of the biggest car makers in the world.
Moreover, Butler said Ford is committed to remaining agnostic and keeping its systems upgradable. Translation: The company is working with Apple on its CarPlay app, as well as with Google's Android Auto. So the new system should be compatible with those programs in the future.
So will the Ford deal resuscitate Blackberry? QNX already has embedded software in millions of vehicles, but this is a major win for the firm. (QNX has also helped with positively reviewed connected car systems like Uconnect in Chrysler and Dodge vehicles). But the days when "Crackberry" was a common colloquialism are long gone. Even Ford with its new QNX-based Sync 3 system will not (initially at least) support Blackberry apps in the dash. On the other hand, it won't be supporting Windows Phone apps either.