The entirely rational leaders at Ford saw the need to improve their products and distinguish them in a crowded market. Its been obvious for a long time now that the car would get internet access and additional “smart” capabilities. Ford looked around and chose Microsoft as its technology partner. All in all a rational decision. Everyone got to feel good about “taking a bold step forward,” press released were written, research facilities were buzzing with new ideas. Ford lead the charge in American telematics.
Another entirely rational observation by Ford was that the replacement life cycle for consumer electronics is much shorter than for automobiles. This lead to the decision to focus on smart phones as the main input and control device for end user functionality in the car. Now the two rational decisions converge in a problem, a big problem.
Most people have a iOS or Android smart phone. Microsoft’s smart phone market share recently tumbled 27% YOY to just 1.9% of the market. For Ford that means their technology layer is built by a company that doesn’t have end user devices and is forced to accommodate competitors devices. Its an issue for sure and has been a clear problem but it certainly came into sharp focus at WWDC this week.
Ford’s cornerstone of customer interaction has been the “hands free” voice command integration in its Sync platform. With Apple’s announcement that nine auto manufacturers car’s will be “Siri enabled” Ford’s partnership with Microsoft sets it alone in a fast moving world.
“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.”
I think the main problem for Ford is not just the voice assistance, its the suite of applications that surround Apple’s Eyes Free offering. Apple is not only providing control functions but they are replacing turn by navigation and when you consider the announced capabilities of Passbook, Ford has a huge up hill battle if it choses to go it alone with Microsoft as its partner. Its not about making a call, or turning up the stereo without using your hands, its about the mobile car ecosystem… and how you pay for gas. Apple’s “secret weapon” is its huge user base of existing iTunes holders and their corresponding credit card accounts.
For Ford its a Forrest from the trees issue. While they are trying to improve the Sycn voice command system to reach parity with Siri, Apple is going to take the ecosystem model right out from underneath them.