By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
In an unusual alliance, Best Buy's Geek Squad will begin providing technical support for Ford radios, announced Ford president/CEO Alan Mulally at the close of his International CES keynote address, here.
Mulally also unveiled a new version of Ford's Sync radio, with free traffic and directions for three years, and revealed that the company is working with Sharp, Sony, Microsoft and others to create what he called a "dashboard of the future."
Under the Best Buy partnership, beginning in the second quarter, the Geek Squad will help customers determine if their Bluetooth cellphone is compatible with the newest Sync radio models. Because Best Buy Mobile stores sell more than 100 handsets from all leading carriers, the retailer can also suggest a more compatible phone if necessary, said Paul Anderson, Ford's cross vehicle marketing manager, following the keynote.
Best Buy will also show consumers how to connect their iPods and other devices to the Sync and will cross-market with Ford. Anderson said Ford is already talking about the possibility that Best Buy could sell Ford Sync accessories in the future. "The possibilities are huge," he said.
Also during the keynote, Mulally claimed Ford is releasing new radio technologies at a rate similar to a consumer electronics company, on a six- to eight-month cycle. Most car companies require two years or more to embed new technology in a vehicle. Ford said it is reducing time to market by partnering with companies such as Microsoft, as well as Inrix, TeleNav, Airbiquity, TellMe and deCarta, who were all involved in the development of the latest Sync.
The new Sync is notable in that it provides navigation and other reports without a map screen by responding to the user's voice commands and then issuing voice cues. Traffic warnings are also delivered by voice. The user can ask the radio for local sports scores, weather and news headlines, and the company is working on adding stock quotes and movie listings. The radio is also unique in that the service is free for three years. It uses voice over data on a Bluetooth link to a cellular phone, requiring no monthly service fees for a data plan, Ford said.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer joined Mulally on stage briefly, claiming the two companies share a vision of delivering connectivity to the car. Ballmer's father worked at Ford for 30 years, Mulally told the audience.
Ford showed a dashboard of the future that resembled a cockpit with various screens, and it demonstrated a personal avatar that could read aloud email, perform Internet searches, and deliver directions and traffic reports through voice commands.
In other future scenarios, the company said its Sync might support downloaded applications, such as those from the Apple App Stores, so, for example, if a driver had Pandora on his iPhone, he could control Internet radio via the steering wheel controls.
Perhaps reflecting the economy's impact on car sales, Ford said the Sync is expected to reach sales of 1 million radios by the fall of 2009, revising earlier predictions of reaching that milestone by this spring. The company still claims that cars with Sync radios sell twice as fast as those without.
Mulally also announced that the Sync will be available globally in 2010.
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