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A Future in the Clouds: Ford Adds iPhone-Like Apps

The future of in-car electronics lies in the clouds. That's becoming more and more apparent as carmakers pair with Internet companies to leverage their considerable online search power. Connecting to online services hands-free via Wi-Fi and cellphone will soon become pretty seamless, and could represent the next step from closed-circuit telephone-based services such as General Motors' OnStar.

Meg Selfe, vice president of complex and embedded systems for IBM Rational Software, told me that auto-based telematics systems "are leapfrogging from the Walkman to the iPod. Cars will go the same way as mobile phones, which are able to use thousands of personalized applications. The cloud is a means to an end, because it puts the work load in the right delivery method."

IBM announced June 7 that it will work with Hughes Telematics and Daimler Freeboard on auto-based computing systems. Advanced telematics, the partners said, will be a standard feature of cars by 2015.

Ford, which has recently issued a blizzard of apps for its MyFord Touch and Sync in-car audio and information systems, announced today a new alliance with Google Maps that will give home computer users a "Send to Sync" function for their travel destinations. The information reaches the car through Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. It launches in late June on 2010 and 2011 Fords equipped with the company's Sync Traffic, Directions & Information (TDI) application.

Ford is relentless about using Internet marketing and the latest apps to attract young buyers to new small cars like the Fiesta and Focus. And it's been turning to a multiplicity of partnerships. The carmaker announced a similar alliance on directions with MapQuest back in January. It is also allied with Microsoft, whose Windows CE system is the base point for Ford software. Some 70 percent of Fords, Lincolns and (for now) Mercurys are being ordered with the Sync system, which is standard in many lines and costs $395 when it isn't. Sync, introduced in 2007, is now in two million cars. Here's how the hands-free aspect of Sync works:

Doug VanDagens, director of Ford connected services, told me that this new service "is something we wanted to offer to our customers, parallel to Nokia offering free maps on all its phones in Europe." And it's part of a growing trend to decouple the car from hard-wired electronics. "When you move 'offboard' you can leverage more processing power," he said, "and detach yourself from the product cycle of the vehicle â€" you can get to market faster. Data services are moving to the clouds because it's a more efficient business model. It's crazy to try to replicate in the car the kind of services that companies like Google, Microsoft and Nokia are offering."

Ford electronics spokesman Alan Hall said it works like this: "You map out directions to grandma's house, and it's sent via your cell number to the Ford delivery network in the cloud. You'll be driving and all you have to do is say 'services' and the destination is waiting for you with audible and visual turn-by-turn directions." The directions will be digitally updated, and influenced by real-time traffic conditions.

Will this mean the end of the need to consult dog-eared printouts as you drive? "Printing paper directions is a relic in our digital age," claims VanDagens.

Ford is working, with University of Michigan students, on a project called American Journey 2.0 that is designed to somehow incorporate web surfing into cars without driver distraction. Hall admitted that the current Sync browser â€" accessible only when the car is stopped because of driver distraction issues â€" is of somewhat limited utility. "Maybe you can check on something while you're in the Burger King parking lot waiting for your order," he said.

Also coming out of the clouds on Fords is a service, free for three years, that will provide drivers with Internet-based stock quotes, movie listings, sports scores and even horoscopes (!). According to Hall, after the third year it will cost $60 a year, which he compared to GM's OnStar at $299 after the first year.

Ford owners won't have to visit their dealers for software updates â€" they're able to do it themselves by downloading a file at home, then plugging a thumb drive into the car's USB port.

I asked VanDagens if a majority of car buyers are up to speed on fast-moving auto electronics. "There are all types, from tech savvy to not so much," he said. "But some people can't get enough of it â€" they want to be able to use all the apps they can access through the Apple Store."

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Photo: Ford Motor Company