US:FORD: Radical tech to debut
FORD: Radical tech to debut
Microsoft deal puts all-purpose software in 2008 Focus first
BY SARAH A. WEBSTER
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
In late October, Mark Fields, president of the Americas for Ford Motor Co., arrived at the Microsoft Corp. headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to review the final details of a top-secret project with Bill Gates, the founder of the Goliath software company.
Gates, who did for the computer what Henry Ford did for the automobile, was personally committed to embedding his new Microsoft Auto operating system in a Ford, America's best-selling brand.
Ford and Microsoft will announce the ambitious venture today in the redesigned 2008 Ford Focus as the North American International Auto Show opens with media previews. It will be one of the show's signature moments as Detroit's automakers flash their newest models and concepts to the world at a pivotal time for the battered domestic auto industry.
The joint project by Ford and Microsoft will substantially integrate two defining technologies of the 20th Century -- the car and computer. For drivers, that means one wireless, voice-operated system for phoning, playing digital music, receiving text messages and executing a variety of other everyday computer functions is less than a year away.
The cutting-edge system, dubbed Sync, could help the Focus reconnect with young buyers and stand out in a crowded small-car market that had been passing Ford by.
Longer term, as Ford brings the Sync option to a dozen 2008 models, the system also could set Ford up for a generation of success by delivering an important message to consumers: American innovation really is Ford's focus.
"It's American technology in an American car in the United States," Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific Inc., said of the new deal. "Somebody was going to do this. It was just a matter of when."
In a market where first-to-market is often counted in dollars, history will show that Ford, with Microsoft's help, beat its competitors.
As he arrived for this meeting with Microsoft, Fields knew the stakes were high. He showed up in typical Ford attire, a suit, tie and the company's blue oval logo pin. All buttoned up, Fields initially felt out of place in a setting known for its casual workplace, where even the billionaire Gates usually wears khakis and an open-collar shirt.
But in a sign of just how important this meeting was to both companies, even Gates wore a tie.
As they met, the two men agreed they would co-brand Sync with the Ford and Microsoft names. Ford will have an exclusive contract with Microsoft through the end of 2008, before the software giant can start selling the system to other automakers.
For the struggling Ford, which the Free Press expects to close out 2006 with as much as $10 billion in losses amid a massive downsizing effort that will slash 44,000 jobs and close 16 plants, the launch of the Sync project is a proud new piece of progress.
"I think you'll see us getting a lot more aggressive on those types of technologies," Fields told the Free Press.
Later today, Fields is set to fly to Las Vegas to help Gates present Sync at the Consumer Electronics Show.
But no matter how important this project might be to Ford or Microsoft, Fields has been instructed not to wear a tie.
A boost for small car
For now, the Ford-Microsoft project is pinned on the Focus, which essentially will become the mascot for Sync.
The Focus, which is expected to hit showrooms this fall, is an interesting entry-level vehicle choice for the Sync project.
Consumers and critics hailed the inaugural 2000 Ford Focus as a fun-to-drive, cutting-edge car that could take on Japanese automakers.
But the car -- now Ford's only small car for sale in the United States -- has aged fast in a hot small-car market populated by young models.
Vehicles like the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, Chevrolet Aveo and Dodge Caliber have redefined what it means to be a small car. With those cars changing the game, the Focus doesn't cut the same impressive swath in traffic it once did, and the functional interior now seems to offer all the charm of a motel coffeemaker.
In the new Focus set to be shown today, designers and engineers aimed to keep the fun-to-drive personality that made the U.S.-based Focus hot in the first place, but they gave it a more modern exterior and interior and sprinkled the whole package with techno-attitude.
Ford also will revive a 2-door Focus as a companion to the 4-door sedan. Unlike the Focus hatchback of the past, however, the new model will be a coupe with a trunk.
What's more, the new vehicle is about 60 pounds lighter than before and is therefore expected to offer the same or better real-world fuel economy than the already efficient Focus.
This 2008 Focus will be a crucial vehicle not just for Ford but also for the suffering Michigan economy, which has lost jobs by the tens of thousands.
The new Focus will be built at the sprawling Wayne Stamping and Assembly Plant on Michigan Avenue, where UAW Local 900 workers are abuzz about the multimillion-dollar investment in their 55-year-old plant to manufacture the car.
The details of that project, as well as several other Ford investment efforts being supported by the State of Michigan, are slated to be jointly announced Tuesday by Ford executives and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Going after young drivers
Without a subcompact car on the ground in the United States -- most major automakers sell both a subcompact and compact car -- Ford is hoping the new Focus will help the automaker catch a piece of a small-car boom whose market is expected to grow 5% a year through 2008, and to win over the 70 million-strong group of Americans born between 1977 and 2002.
To demographers, that group is known as Generation Y, Echo Boomers or Millennials. But to automakers, they are the Future Drivers of America, and the 2008 Focus pays homage to their nomadic, technical lifestyle.
Although the new exterior is marked by a horizontal chrome grille, a higher belt line and new wheels, the cabin with its new look and technology is really what this Focus is about.
The contemporary, computer-inspired interior includes a silver metallic dashboard -- think laptop PC -- illuminated by crisp and calm ice-blue lighting -- think Windows XP desktop screen -- and a message-center display that peeks up off the dashboard for convenient reading.
Special chimes inside the vehicle, for reminders about seat belts and unclosed doors, are similar to other digital sounds in modern life.
Ford also will offer Focus buyers an ambient lighting package that will allow them to select one of seven colors to light up the inside of cup holders and foot wells. Drivers will be able to cycle through the colors on a dash-mounted switch, not unlike the ring tones in a cell phone.
The effect of the lighting is dramatic, creating different moods, all of which make the compact cabin feel larger.
"We want customers to be grabbed by the fact that it's different," Beth Donovan, Ford's group product marketing and planning manager for small cars, told the Free Press.
Young car buyers, she said, want to be connected to their vehicles.
"They shouldn't have to give up anything about their lifestyle today just because they're getting in their car," she said.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....