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Ford, Its Sync System Under Attack, Plans an Emergency Fix

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high-tech, Ford
MyFord Touch's new touch-screen interface: easier to use? (Ford Grapic)Let's give a thought to auto audio.  In the early days of motoring, the gas engine was so loud it's unlikely that any motorist could have heard a car radio, even if the electronics of the period were up to the task. No, the first commercially successful car radio, from the Galvin Brothers (sounds like a country group) didn't appear until 1930, and it would sure dress up your Model A. You could now pop along to the big hit version of "Why Was I Born?" by Paul Whiteman's orchestra. (I met the colorful writer of that song in the 1970s, but that's another story.)

This German Becker Mexico radio offered shorwave - just right for tuning in the BBC. (Flickr/OZinOH)FM was slow to become mobile - it didn't appear as a car radio option, from Blaupunkt, until 1952. I inherited a '62 Chevy Nova ragtop from my uncle, who was something of an audiophile. The car came with an early Blaupunkt AM/FM/Shortwave radio, with the latter band being great for BBC news and weird ethnic music on night drives. Why aren't cars offered with shortwave today?

So not much happens for a while, but then radio goes all-transistor, replacing tubes (1963) and cars get four-track (the Earl "Madman" Muntz Stereo-Pak; blink, and you missed it). And then, in 1965, we saw the first eight-track players. I well remember having Cream's Wheels of Fire on eight-track, which had limited per-track timings. Clapton would fade down mid-solo, only to reappear on the next track. The cassette (1970) and the CD (1985) were welcome in-car improvements.

Probably the biggest leap after the CD player, no lie, is the Ford Sync system, which instantly became the iPod of car-based audio circa 2007 and quickly became a major reason people bought cars like the Fusion, Fiesta and Focus. Here, it's cited as a selling feature for the 2008 Fusion over that same year's virtuous Chevy Malibu. Four of the seven reasons people bought the 2011 Ford Edge had to do with the Sync system, including its touch screen, steering-wheel controls and voice recognition features.

Sync, a/k/a My Ford Touch (the nomenclature continues to confuse me) was and is versatile - you can listen to broadcast or satellite radio, CDs, iPods, or music from hard drives (via the USB connection). And the company promised to keep it current with downloaded updates via that same USB port).

Alas, some of the luster is now off the MyFord Touch system, as drivers have lived with it for a while. Some find it overly complicated, and distracting, while driving. As Ford put it in a press release, using rather delicate language, "While owners reported that they love the system, there were distinct areas where they wanted improvements." Check it out on the Ford message boards - some people are downright rude about it.

Soon, other automakers chimed in with copycat systems that, in some cases, worked just as well or better than Ford's. Sync was out of sync. According to Edmunds Inside Line, "Ford has been hit with harsh criticism about issues of usability and compatibility with its most recent portable integration concoction, while also becoming a favorite target of distracted-driving activists." Consumer Reports chimed in last January, saying the interface was complicated and distracting.  CU cited Sync problems in downgrading Ford's reliability ratings - moving the company from 10th to 20th place. And Ford also sank in the prestigious JD Power quality survey.

Time for an emergency retooling: For has held four customer clinics about the Sync system, and got an earful from users who say the system is too hard to use. I agree that its many small controls and endless array of options are difficult when you're trying to keep your eyes on the road. The system was never as bad as the utterly non-intuitive systems on BMWs and Audis - which can require six individual action just to change radio stations. But American audio systems have typically been dial by touch - reach over and twiddle the big knob - and Sync's fiddly controls got some thumbs-down reviews.

Now Ford is putting a positive spin on what amounts to a relaunch of MyFord Touch, set to appear on 2013 models. I talked to Gary Jablonski, the manager of Sync platform development, who described the upgrade as "sweeping." Early next year, some 250,00 owners will get a free USB stick with software that will change the interface in about 45 minutes. They can also get the upgrade installed at Ford dealers. "After a dialogue with our customers, the user interface is completely updated," Jablonski told me. "It's dramatically simplified. The feedback we're getting says that it's 'calming,' 'intuitive,' and 'relaxing.'" Judge for yourself. Here's a video look at the new screens:



The main thing Ford did was to give interface prominence to the features owners use every day, such as tuning the radio, finding a song, or adjusting the climate control. The system is also supposed to have been quite noticeably sped up, so you won't be waiting for your app to load. "It's much more responsive," Jablonski said.

The voice recognition is critical because, frankly, auto-based systems just haven't been good enough, and the Apple iPhone 4S' Siri just raised the bar considerably. Until I can say, "Take me home," or "I feel like sushi" to MyFord Touch I won't be satisfied.

One more thing - Ford's system still fails to be accommodating to people with large music collections. I have, ahem 53,000 songs in iTunes format, and MyFord Touch can't catalog them all - Jablonski told me it's designed to handle up to 160-gig iPod Classics, but not 500-gig hard drives. That means I can't really tap into everything that the system can do.

Ford still deserves huge credit for creating the modern standard for audio systems. But this is a fast-moving field, and what's groundbreaking today will be superseded tomorrow.
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high-tech, Ford

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