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Originally published January 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 9, 2009 at 11:46 AM

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Seattle-area tech firms help Ford add more info to Sync system

Thursday at the International Consumer Electronics Show, Ford highlighted the Sync system, which Microsoft and at least three other Seattle-area companies have a hand in.

Seattle Times technology reporter

YouTube| Ford Sync demonstration

LAS VEGAS — With automakers struggling mightily in the recession, Ford is doubling down its bet on in-car information and entertainment technology.

Thursday at the International Consumer Electronics Show, Ford highlighted the Sync system, which Microsoft and at least three other Seattle-area companies have a hand in.

"We are a car company, but we are learning to think and act like an electronics company," said Ford CEO Alan Mulally, formerly head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "We are the only automaker with your kind of clock speed, bringing new technologies to market on a regular, six- to eight-month cycle."

The latest version of Sync, announced here this week, builds on the hands-free phone and media-player functions of the original, which was introduced in 2007 and pairs mobile devices with the car.

Ford later added 911 assistance, crash notifications and vehicle-health reports.

Later this year, new Sync features will provide news, sports and other information, directions and real-time traffic updates.

The automaker expects to have more than 1 million Sync-equipped vehicles on the road later this year. The product originally launched in 12 models and is set to expand into 20 models this year.

Sync is standard on many Ford vehicles and an option in others for $395. The traffic and information services are free for the first three years; Ford hasn't said what will happen after that.

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. His father-in-law and great-great-grandfather also worked at Ford, according to a Ford executive.

(Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who joined Mulally on stage briefly, also proclaimed his Ford roots. Ballmer grew up in Detroit and his father worked for the carmaker for 30 years.)

Seattle-based Airbiquity provides data-over-voice services for Sync.

Bellevue's Bsquare, which specializes in mobile and embedded Windows, is also playing a role. It 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 cannot disclose specific details, other than that it involves next-generation Sync technology.

"I think Ford really opened up a lot of eyes in the industry when they did Sync," he said.

It used to be that automakers went to companies like Continental, Delphi and Panasonic 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. ' "

Derrick Kuzak, a Ford executive who sets product-development strategy, told the CES crowd the company aims to have an open system that can work with a wide range of devices.

"With Sync, we are partners [with Microsoft] in the technology business," he said. "We are not interested in developing our own proprietary or closed system."

Another Ford executive, Doug Van Dagens, said the company is working on programming interfaces that will allow people to control applications on their mobile phones through Sync.

Beyond the Sync brand, Microsoft's Auto platform is used by Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and other carmakers in South America and Europe.

Hyundai-Kia is building on a future version of the platform and will have cars in the market in 2010, said Velle Kolde, product manager in Microsoft's automotive-business unit.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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