Why Ford is dumping Microsoft for Blackberry's QNX OS

Ford joins a slew of other automakers by moving toward open source via the open standards-based QNX in-vehicle operating system

Ford is reportedly set to replace the Windows-based Sync platform in its cars with an open standards-based system used by several other automakers.

Ford, among the first car companies to offer the ability to pair mobile devices with its in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system, plans to dump Microsoft's Windows Embedded Automotive OS as its Sync IVI platform and adopt Blackberry's open standards-based OS QNX CAR Platform for Infotainment, according to reports by Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Apart from bugs in the Microsoft-based Ford Sync system -- causing poor voice recognition and the need for an occasional reboot -- since it was unveiled, the stories cited a bigger reason for the change: Cost and limited functionality.

IVIs contain most software among devices in a car, requiring upwards of 40 million lines of code.

Carmakers using products from software providers such as Microsoft today have to pay license fees and depend on third parties for upgrades and customization. Such companies, therefore, are left at the mercy of their vendors.

Ford's Sync IVI system has never been recommended by Consumer Reports magazine. In fact it recently slipped to its lowest ranking ever by the magazine.

"Certainly all the negative press and feedback and Consumer Reports talking badly about Ford's Sync system ... is helping Ford rethink all of their technology solutions going forward," said Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski. By turning to the open-source QNX platform, Ford gets a full community of developers to support and update software. QNX also supports the ubiquitous HTML5 markup language and other native user interface toolsets.

To be up front, I own a 2013 Ford Escape with the premium-version Sync with MyFord Touch (i.e., touch-screen control and displays). It's not terrible, but it has limited capabilities, as well as poor voice recognition technology. It freezes up at times and requires reboots by shutting the car off and opening the driver's door -- not always possible while driving down a highway.

Computerworld's Lucas Mearian shows some of the glitches he's experienced with Ford's SYNC system in terms of voice navigation, music player integration and what happens when it just freezes on the road.

To sync my iPhone to the car's platform to access Pandora streaming music, it must be inserted in the car's USB port, not a bad thing as the phone is charged at the same time.

The system does have hands-free calling and voice-activated controls that work well ... when ... you ... speak ... clearly... and ... slowly. The vehicle's voice- or touch-screen activated navigation system works well most of the time. But, the system is not intuitive. You must learn the IVI's language in order to be able to use the voice activated controls.

For example, if you want to use the car's navigation system to find a street address, you must say, "Navigation, street address." Otherwise, it does not work.

Perhaps least appealing is that once my iPhone is Bluetooth synced for hands-free calling, I must use Ford's Sync voice recognition technology and not mobile apps that work far better, such as Google Search.

Why QNX?

Before being purchased by Blackberry in 2010, QNX Software Systems was owned by audio and infotainment equipment company Harman International. It's been used in more than 200 different car models, so it has been well vetted.

"Having that automotive expertise and understanding the programs they have in place, how they work from an engineering perspective, the UI and getting applications into the head unit makes QNX very strong," Koslowski said.

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