Why Ford is dumping Microsoft for Blackberry's QNX OS

Ford is reportedly set to replace the Windows-based Sync platform in its cars with an open-source 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 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.

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 Harmon 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.

According to the reports, Ford also considered Google's Android-based OS before choosing QNX Software Systems.

Ford has yet to confirm its move away from Microsoft. "We do not discuss details of our work with others or speculate on future products for competitive reasons," a spokesman said.

But if Ford is in fact embracing open source, it isn't alone. Many automakers are working to standardize on a Linux-based operating system for IVI systems that would make it easier for cars to act more like smartphones.

The IVI system is a "black box" that powers a car's audio and entertainment systems, as well as hands-free phone services and satellite navigation systems. Most IVIs today have touchscreens and can be voice-activated, but many car buyers pass up those options.

"Today, automakers are having a hard time getting customers to buy informatics systems because they only can do 10% of what a mobile phone can do," said Rudi Streif, who leads the Automotive Grade Linux workgroup for the Linux Foundation.

Ford wants its IVI to act more like a smartphone or tablet, which can't be done using Microsoft's OS. For example, Ford's Sync with MyFord Touch (the premium Ford IVI system) is said to offer connectivity to more than 60 applications, mostly non-mainstream apps.

Blackberry's QNX is already used by General Motors, Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and other automakers to run IVI systems that connect mobile devices to in-car technology. Audi has also built a concept car using QNX.

QNX is only one of several open-source IVIs

Google, QNX and GENIVI, a nonprofit auto industry alliance, are driving the adoption of open-source IVI development platforms. The alliance, which claims 180 industry members, is looking to align platform requirements, deliver reference implementations and offer certification programs to automakers.

The Linux Foundation is also driving open source efforts in the automobile industry. In 2012, it launched the Tizen Project, a reference architecture and software development kit (SDK) for a Linux-based IVI. Tizen's SDK allows developers to use HTML5 to write applications for the system.

An open-source IVI operating system creates a reusable platform consisting of core services, middleware and open application layer interfaces that eliminate the redundant efforts required to create separate proprietary systems. By developing an open-source platform, carmakers can share upgrades.

Automakers could then focus on differentiating infotainment systems through user interfaces, which only make up about 5% to 10% of the code in IVIs.

"We're leveraging essentially an $11 billion investment already made in Linux by many other companies including IBM and Intel," Streif said. "We can essentially get the platform for free from a royalty sense. Of course, we have to spend resources to make it work in our particular platforms."

Could this save Blackberry?

Struggling BlackBerry could be buoyed by QNX.

Gartner's Koslowski said while QNX won't likely save Blackberry as it exists today, it may help redefine the company.

"I don't think that's what the current owners of Blackberry have in mind, but I do believe it will create a longer-term revenue stream for them that at some point might even become more of a core for Blackberry," Koslowski said. "I can't say it will save Blackberry based on the old Blackberry because it is quite different."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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