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Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times technology reporter Matt Day.

January 8, 2009 at 4:26 PM

CES: Ford Sync, a Ford feature with lots of local hands involved

LAS VEGAS — The Sync in-vehicle information and entertainment is one thing that’s gone right for Ford as automakers have struggled mightily with the recession. The company is rolling out a third generation of Sync, and a number of Puget Sound area companies have a hand in the effort — Microsoft foremost among them.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally, the former head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, is set to address a modest crowd here at the International Consumer Electronics Show here this afternoon. Read on for a look at Sync and the local companies involved.

The latest version of Sync builds on the hands-free phone and media player functions of the original, introduced in 2007. Ford later added 911 assistance, crash notifications and vehicle health reports.

“Now we’re adding traffic, directions and information,” said Velle Kolde, product manager in Microsoft’s automotive business unit.

These new location-aware features require a GPS, so cars with earlier versions of Sync would need additional hardware. Ford has not announced whether it will allow upgrades from older Sync vehicles.

The automaker expects to reach more than 1 million Sync-equipped vehicles on the road later this year. The product originally launched in 12 models. It’s set to expand into 20 models this year. “I think it’s Ford’s intention to get into pretty much all their models,” Kolde said.

Sync is standard on many Ford vehicles and can be added as an option to others for $395. The traffic and information services are free for the first three years. Ford hasn’t determined what will happen after that, Kolde said.

The traffic information is delivered by Inrix, a Kirkland company headed by Bryan Mistele, formerly of Microsoft’s Automotive Business Unit, and, earlier in his career, Ford.

Another Seattle company, Airbiquity, provides data-over-voice services for Sync.

Bellevue’s Bsquare, which specializes in mobile and embedded Windows, is also playing a role. The company had $2.6 million in service revenue from Ford in its third quarter, but Bsquare CEO Brian Crowley said in an interview last month that his company is not able to disclose specific details.

“We are working with Ford on the next generation Sync technology. We actually expect to be able to talk about it maybe later on in the summer,” he said.

The auto industry’s troubles had not dampened Bsquare’s enthusiasm for the opportunity in automotive. “We believe that there are over 100 potential customers who are interested in building products based on the Microsoft Auto platform,” Bsquare said when releasing its third-quarter earnings.

“For us, that’s a big change from a couple years ago,” Crowley said. “I think Ford really opened up a lot of eyes in the industry when they did Sync.

It used to be that auto makers went to companies like Continental, Delphi and Panasonics and ordered a component with a list of capabilities.

“And a black box came back that fit in the dash,” Crowley said. “Ford said, ‘I’m going to break that cycle. I’m going to do this all myself.'”

“What we’ve been told by Ford is this is strategic for them and so we haven’t seen any change in that stance at all,” he said.

Microsoft’s Auto platform is being used by Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and other car makers in South America and Europe. Hyundai-Kia is building on a future version of the platform and will have cars in market in 2010, Kolde said.

The Windows Automotive platform powers navigation systems in Acura, Honda and Volvo vehicles, though it doesn’t carry Microsoft branding.

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