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Is Ford facing off against Apple over the connected car?

In the next 12 months, Apple’s(s aapl) popular virtual assistant Siri will start conversing with us through our car speakers. Among the many new iOS 6 features Apple announced at WWDC was Siri’s new Eyes Free feature, which will essentially replicate the iPhone’s Siri button on the car steering wheel.

Automakers are lining up to support Eyes Free. Apple showed a slide at WWDC highlighting nine car companies that would be integrating the feature: Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Honda(s hmc), General Motors(s gm), Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes and Toyota(s tm). Not on that slide was Ford(s f), which just happens to be the most aggressive automaker when it comes to integrating connected-car technologies such as voice command and control.

It’s not that Ford doesn’t love Apple. In fact, the iPhone is a core device in its Microsoft-powered(s msft) connected-car platform, Sync, which requires a smartphone to connect to the Internet, and hosts the infotainment apps Sync ultimately runs. In that sense Ford wants to integrate with the world’s most popular smartphone as closely as possible.

The problem is Apple may have just laid claim to a huge chunk of turf that some automakers view as rightfully theirs. And since Ford has been among the most aggressive in pushing the boundaries of connected-car services, it may very well feel Apple is asking it to give up too much territory

She who controls the interface controls the apps

Here’s Apple’s rather sparse description of Siri’s Eyes Free capabilities:

You’ll be able to ask Siri questions without taking your eyes off the road. To minimize distractions even more, your iOS device’s screen won’t light up. With the Eyes Free feature, ask Siri to call people, select and play music, hear and compose text messages, use Maps and get directions, read your notifications, find calendar information, add reminders, and more. It’s just another way Siri helps you get things done, even when you’re behind the wheel.

The big red flag is navigation. When you ask Siri for directions, it isn’t accessing Ford’s own vehicle nav system and services; rather it’s tapping into Apple’s new Maps service (also unveiled at WWDC). The other features, such as dictating text messages, playing stored music, and reading back notifications seem innocuous enough, since they tap into the iPhone’s core functions, not competing services’. But Sync replicates all of these features through its own voice commands, and Ford has every interest in keeping those features in its dashboard rather than ceding them to the iPhone.

Ford won’t make revenue off a dictated email, but it will off its own core in-vehicle navigation, information and entertainment services. Ford is also turning Sync into a platform, inviting third-party developers like Pandora (s p), Stitcher and most recently MOG to develop apps that take advantage not only of Sync’s voice-command capabilities but the console display and dashboard controls.

If Ford, however, gives up even basic functions like message notifications to Siri, it basically starts ceding its platform, becoming a peripheral set of speakers and display to the iPhone. Voice is going to be the key user interface in the car, and it’s highly unlikely a driver is going to switch back and forth between two interfaces. So whichever company establishes itself as the de facto in-car voice assistant will have a huge advantage.

A walled garden moving at 60 mph

No matter how revolutionary and useful Siri is, it’s important to note that Apple’s virtual assistant is a gatekeeper to a walled garden. Integration with Siri isn’t an option for developers except those Apple chooses to work with, and so far it really isn’t working with any. Instead of working with developers to Siri-enable their apps, it is sourcing content from partners like Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp.

You can make the same walled garden claims against Ford as well. It’s actually allowing developers to build on the Sync AppLink platform, but today its dev program is invite-only. Ford, however, has said it may open the platform up in the future.

The vehicle represents a huge opportunity to become the new connected device every American family owns, and both Apple and the automakers realize that potential. Today we could be witnessing the beginning of a new platform war, fought not only over the car but over the voice interface that controls it.

Walled Garden image courtesy of Flickr user sportsilliterate

39 Responses to “Is Ford facing off against Apple over the connected car?”

  1. Henry 3 Dogg

    “…Apple chooses to work with, and so far it really isn’t working with any”

    How do you know it isn’t working with any. All you know is that you don’t know anyone who is, or who will lell you they are, working with Apple.

    That tells us more about you, than about Apple.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      I know because that’s what Apple has told me. It isn’t working with outside developers on Siri, and doesn’t currently have plans to do so. That doesn’t mean it won’t open Siri in the future. But given what Apple has publicly stated “so far” seems apt.

  2. Peter Deep

    When I live in the US, I was buying Lincolns and Fords for the longest time and I was so impressed that my 1996 Lincoln had a cell phone that had amazing voice recognition and hands-free usage. This was not common at the time – neither were cell phones. I had high hopes for their new technology. I just rented a Ford on vacation and could not get the car’s SYNC to work with my iPhone at all. It was as confusing as anything MS has ever built and functioned best only as an FM radio. When I buy my next car its ability to work with my iPhone will be the deal breaker.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Actually Greg, isn’t that the whole point of Sync? By relying heavily on the phone for the connection to cloud-based services and to host applications, Sync becomes a thin client. So even as the car technology falls into obsolescence, the smartphone keeps pace. Sync can always be updated through software, though it is stuck in time in terms of hardware.

      • Kevin, my 2009 Ford hasn’t received an update in over 2 years.I sort of feel like an iPad 1 user must feel like now. I’d be very happy if Ford offered me a way to update the hardware/software, but I don’t think that’s in the near future. (Nor would I guess it would be affordable when they charge $200 for a simple map update).

      • Kevin Fitchard

        Yeah, I see your point Greg. Even if the radio and the smartphone software can keep up, you can’t really replace the hardware interface in the car. This is going to be a big problem going forward, I’m assuming.

  3. jfutral

    Great article up to when you for some unknown reason felt the ned to invoke the over-used, irrelevant, unhelpful term “walled garden”. Lost me then.


    • Kevin Fitchard

      Ha! Yeah, I was trying to make the point that they way both Siri and Sync are set up now, assuming control of the interface they block out any competing or third party service, hence “walled garden”. On rereading I should have followed through on the point more.

  4. Kostas Papahatzis

    I would think that, those car manufacturers not present in the Apple slide are probably running roadmaps with some kind of service like Siris. So why team with anyone when you are nearly ready to kick off your own similar service sometime in the next one or two years?

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Yep Kostas, and there’s nothing preventing them from doing both either. A lot of those automakers on the Siri list already have commercial connected car platforms and voice integration.

  5. dang1970

    If it is anything like Siri, it might look like this: In 500 ft turn…connecting to server…In 250 ft turn…connecting to server…in 100 ft turn….connecting to server….make u-turn…connecting to server…

  6. Boltar

    Ford’s Sync has been plagued with problems and customer complaints based largely on the usability issue. And Apple certainly has an earned reputation for good human interfaces. As great as Ford’s recent vehicles have been, and as much credit as they deserve for trying to approach this problem early on, I suspect they have bet on a losing horse. They would be well served to allow both options and let the market decide.

  7. InnovEdge

    Considering that Sync is a typical Microsoft product that doesn’t work very well with any Smartphone, I hope Ford dumps it for Siri. Sync is so far behind the times it’s not even funny. In typical Microsoft fashion, Microsoft blames Ford, and Ford blames Microsoft. Sync is another Microsoft beta product that will never come close to working right. I’m a big Ford fan, but I might become a less loyal customer if they don’t fix Sync or dump it and go Siri.

    • I’m a big Ford fan too – and I agree 100%. I “borrowed” a new Focus recently and LOVED the car. Even loved the “supposed” function of Sync – but could not get most of the features to work consistently. It was typical Microsoft crap. Ford – dump Sync!!!

  8. Raul Santaella

    As a Sync equipped Ford Edge owner I have to say that the UX interface is lacking.

    Preset radio stations seem buggy as they sometimes display stations other than those that have been programmed/preset, although they play the actual programmed station when selected (if that makes sense).

    Tried the USB interface and couldn’t figure out how to upload files so they retain their playlist order from my PC or how to give them a set order from the in car display.

    If Ford intends to battle Apple head on with their existing software my prediction is that they will lose.


  9. Droidfan

    I don’t know, but I think Ford is a couple moves ahead of everyone else….including Apple. They haven’t said Apple can’t access their cars…they are simply controlling how Apple gets there.

    Much like wireless carriers have come to realize that Apple can not become the dominant mobile force…so has Ford. Verizon could have had the first iPhone….but they were smart enough to recognize the huge downside to Apple’s demands. Verizon played it smart. They backed the newbie…Android…helped it grow to a force that balanced Apple…then they agreed to talk to Apple. Did Apple extract a few special things from Verizon…sure. But nothing that put a noose around Verizon’s neck. Poor old AT&T is still hamstrung by its partnership with Apple.

    Hell, even Eric Schmidt saw the evil that was happening at Apple. That was his main motivation to buy a fledgling company…Android… and invest billions in it to be able to compete with Apple.

    In the end, Apple will be it’s own worst enemy. If it starts to stifle competition in the automobile mobile segment…the DOJ will give them the appropriate hair cut.

    • I have to disagree with you on a couple of things. AT&T isn’t hamstrung by its partnership with Apple, it’s hamstrung by not being as good or as popular of a network as Verizon. And why would the DOJ react to Apple stifling competition (if that’s what Apple’s doing) in the automobile mobile segment any more than Apple stifling competition in the non-automobile mobile segment?

    • progressiveagentprovocateur

      “They haven’t said Apple can’t access their cars…they are simply controlling how Apple gets there.”

      If I buy it, it is mine- not Ford’s. Ford is off my list because of STYNC and I am not alone.

      “NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Ford tumbled from a fifth place ranking in last year’s J.D. Power Initial Quality ranking all the way down to 23rd this year.

      Much of Ford’s trouble has to do with the latest version of its Sync entertainment and phone system, said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power.”

    • Henry 3 Dogg

      “Hell, even Eric Schmidt saw the evil that was happening at Apple. That was his main motivation to buy a fledgling company…Android… and invest billions in it to be able to compete with Apple.”

      No. Eric Schmidt saw a great opportunity to be evil himself.

      The last thing we need is Android in car.

      Driver: “Which way do I turn at the lights?”

      Android: “I’ll tell you in a minute, now I know a great little exhaust centre near here, and…”

      Driver: “I’m not interested. Which way do I turn?”

      Android: “I know a great product for removing fat. Or would you like to increase the size of your p…..”

      Driver: “NO. WHICH WAY?”

      Android: “Can I install Chrome to replace your engine management system.”

  10. motionblurred

    In at least the short term it could be a big mistake for Ford. Everybody is just interested in a seamless experience with their smartphone or tablet and not having other things get in the way.

    A Siri API for devs will eventually come but this is a service that isn’t even coming out of beta until iOS 6 is released.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi MotionBlurred,

      It could very well be a mistake for Ford. If your connected car strategy is dependent on the iPhone, best not to piss off it’s maker.

      But don’t you think it’s ridiculous for Apple to claim Siri is still in beta? I mean it’s the subject of a multi-million-dollar ad campaign and it’s now being hardware integrated into what seems like half of the world’s new cars. You might as well say Facebook is still in Beta.

  11. Gary Reed

    I think the ability to carry my tech to any car offers the most flexibly. I can’t take sync to my Honda or any other car. I can take my phone to any car

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Gary,

      Sync doesn’t preclude you from doing that. It’s not an embedded wireless technology like OnStar. It integrates with the iPhone and its apps so you bring everything with you when you leave. Granted if you wanted the exact same experience going from car to car, Siri would give you that.

      On the flip side, Sync and other connected car platforms link with other smartphone OSes so if you’re a multi-platform family, everyone can use the car’s features the same way.

      I’m not saying one approach is better than another, though. I’m only trying to explain why Ford may be reluctant to get into bed with Siri.

      • motionblurred

        “On the flip side, Sync and other connected car platforms link with other smartphone OSes so if you’re a multi-platform family…”

        Yes, I do but I also think that is part of Apple’s plan to dominate. Apple is leveraging the purchasing power of iOS users into forcing third parties to adopt their features. These nine major car companies are saying that they consider the iOS user far more important in potential future sales than users of competing mobile operating systems.

        As for me, well I’m in iOS only home so I’m not really interested multi-platform support.

      • Kevin Fitchard

        Hey Rich,

        I meant that Sync doesn’t use its own cellular radios. It grafts on to whatever smartphone the driver uses and taps into its (albeit Sync-optimized) apps. So as an example if you were to listen to subscription music service like MOG on your iPhone, and you stepped into your car, Sync would pick up playing right you left off as soon as it linked to your phone. Apple will likely offer similar capabilities as well.

  12. Thomas

    I hope that Ford ends up working with Apple. If they join the rest of the automakers, and integrate Siri, they would have amazing vehicles. Let’s make it happen Ford!

    • Scott Monty

      Thanks to SYNC, our amazing vehicles already integrate virtually all phones, including iPhones. We offer *more* functionality on *more devices* in our cars.

      Scott Monty
      Global Digital Communications
      Ford Motor Company

      • progressiveagentprovocateur

        I avoided a new Ford last year for 2 primary reasons, the first being Microsoft STYNC. It is not the best, is unreliable and keep your corporate PR out of the conversation.

        My Golf GTI’ Bluetooth actually works seamlessly, unlike STYNC. Full access to the music and phone from the steering wheel and/or stalk controls- all that is needed. I remember driving up to a friend’s house for a cookout last summer and seeing all the new Fords there with the hoods up and the batteries disconnected to reset non-working STYNC equipped/afflicted cars.

        STYNC is so bad is caused a drop in J.D. Power ratings for Ford. I grew up in a Ford family (dealer), learned to drive in a Ford, and bought one for my first new purchase. I’m not biased against Ford, but don’t want that crapware in any car I own.

      • Reality Checker


        As a MyFord Touch Owner and daily user I would have to respectfully disagree with your comments. MFT, even after the Performance Upgrade is extremely buggy and unstable for the majority of users. This is compounded by its inability to connect with the iPhone.

        All one has to do is read some of the forums to get an idea how problematic the MFT/iPhone interface is.

        Unfortunately its significant enough that people are trading in their vehicles.

        I appreciate that this is not solely a Ford issue because of the way Apple allows its devices to connect but it frustrating to the user. i.e. Apple will not allow MAP Protocol in the Bluetooth stack which would allow MFT to read Text messaging out loud.

        iPhone owners who purchase a vehicle with MFT get reduced functionality and since SYNC/MFT is Microsoft based it works 100% with only a handful of Android phones.

      • Virtual Reality Crusher

        You’ll be trading in that horrible Exploder for what? Wait it’s an Apple problem, uuuh it’s a Ford, yeah Ford problem, heh it’s an Apple MAP problem. Confused much? it’s Apple’s programming limitation and it’s Ford’s problem? You’ll trade a $40K vehicle because you’re upset over your poor little iPhone? Yeah, it’s failed reasoning like this that gives Apple users the stereotype they so often deserve. Some of us can actually get our iPhones to work with Sync.

      • Derek Kerton

        Re progressiveagentprovocateur’s comment:

        ” and keep your corporate PR out of the conversation.”

        What a myopic view! Having the company in question as part of the discussion is extremely valuable. Ford doesn’t get to dominate or control the conversation, but just contributes like you and me. It’s when the subject of the discussion ISN’T in the conversation that we’re just pissing in the wind.

        Part of the value of the chat here at GigaOm is that people like the Ford VP ARE joining in.