At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, Ford announced that it is bringing its SYNC and AppLink platforms to Europe. After selling close to 4 million cars with its voice-activated hands-free platform in the U.S., Ford now plans to sell more than 3.5 million SYNC-enabled cars in Europe by 2015. SYNC will speak nine European languages and also feature Ford's Emergency alert system (that's SYNC 911 Assist in the U.S.). The first car to feature SYNC in Europe will be the also newly announced B-Max vehicle, but Ford plans to quickly bring it to other cars as well.
In addition to SYNC, Ford is also launching AppLink, its platform for connecting mobile apps to the car and controlling them by voice, in Europe. The company is actively looking for local partners here that will enable their mobile apps for Ford's system.
SYNC, which had been available in the U.S. for a few years now, will now also speak nine European languages. Given the multitude of countries SYNC has to work in, one of the most important features of SYNC here will be the new emergency assist feature, which will automatically detect where you are and call the right emergency service for the country you are in and then talk to the emergency services in the appropriate language.
Looking ahead, Ford noted that it wants to bring more cloud-based services to the car as well. In Ford's vision, you next car would automatically shut down the lights in your house when you leave your garage, for example, tell you about road-work and traffic jams and also find a parking spot for you.
Earlier this year, at Google I/O, Ford and Google announced a new project that would use Google’s cloud-based tools to make vehicles smarter. Later this week, at the 18th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems, Ford will give its first public demonstrations of the fruits of this work. The idea behind this work is to use Google’s Prediction API to “predict driver behavior in order to optimize vehicle control systems and improve vehicle performance attributes such as fuel or hybrid-electric efficiency.”
In Ford’s vision, this technology will help drivers to save gas, find the best times to drive a specific route and maybe even set your cars performance settings to optimize your vehicle for the route you are about to drive. Using historical data – where and when a driver has traveled and at what speeds, for example – and real-time information about current traffic flows, this system will be able to turn these predictions into actionable recommendations for drivers.
Until now, most of the cloud-based technology that has made it into cars was about navigation, real-time traffic and infotainment. Now, says Ryan McGee, technical expert, Vehicle Controls Architecture and Algorithm Design, Ford Research and Innovation, “this technology has the potential to empower our vehicles to anticipate a driver’s needs for various reasons, such as optimizing a vehicle’s powertrain efficiency.”
In the demonstration that Ford has planned for this week, the company will show how “a prototype Escape Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) could use a combination of cloud-based and proprietary technology to learn when to switch from being gasoline-powered to all-electric upon entering a lower emissions zone. Cities such as London, Berlin and Stockholm already have such zones.” Thanks to being able to predict when exactly you will enter such a zone, the car, says McGee, “could optimize itself to comply with regulations and at the same time optimize energy usage over the total distance of the route by switching the engine to all-electric mode at specific times.”
This morning, Ford and Toyotaannounced that they have signed a memorandum of understanding that will allow the two companies to work together on building a new standard for telematics platform for their cars that will enable in-car communications systems and Internet-based services. The two companies plan to sign a formal agreement early next year.
Ford, of course, has made a name for itself in the technology industry by adding more and more technology to its cars in recent years, mostly based on its SYNC system. Toyota, too, recently introduced Entune. Just like SYNC, Entune connects cars to the Internet through existing cell networks.
Standardizing the Technology, Not the Look and Feel
Toyota specifically noted that these new systems will be able to link to home energy systems and allow drivers to save money by recharging plug-in hybrids and electric cars whenever their electricity is the cheapest. Ford also stressed that the collaboration will mostly focus on back-end infrastructure and standardizing enabling technologies, including standardizing Bluetooth systems, in-car WiFi systems and similar technologies. Both companies stressed that their respective systems would keep their own looks and feature sets.
It’s worth noting that Ford’s current SYNC system is based on Microsoft’s in-car software platform and that Toyota and Microsoft recently announced a similar partnership. Toyota also plans to use Microsoft’s Azure as its cloud computing platform for its next-generation telematics platform. Having a similar platform will likely help both companies to collaborate on these systems.
In addition to the collaboration in the telematics field, the two companies also announced that they would collaborate on developing new hybrid systems for small trucks and SUVs.
I still remember plugging my portable CD player into a cassette adapter so I could listen to my music in the car. Today, in-car cassette players are a thing of the past, but most cars still come with built-in CD players. According to Ford’s global trends and futuring manger Sheryl Connelly, that could soon change, though. While talking to AM Online, Connelly noted that “the in-car CD player – much like pay telephones – is destined to fade away in the face of exciting new technology.”
CDs, of course, have not exactly been big sellers over the last few years, as more and more consumers have shifted to MP3s, so phasing out in-car CD players only makes sense in the long run. Ford’s Connelly believes her company will continue to offer CD players in markets where there is demand, but as her colleague Ralf Brosig also told AM Online, Ford expects to see all-digital in-car entertainment systems in the near future.
Next Wave: Cloud-Connected Cars
Ford has been among the leaders when it comes to bringing digital entertainment options to cars, and has added USB connectivity and SD card ports to its latest MyFord Touch systems.
Our cars are quickly becoming sophisticated computers on wheels and new cars often feature technologies like speech recognition, lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and blind-zone alerts that would have looked like science fiction not too long ago. Now, however, the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study shows that quite a few of these new technologies end up confusing users and have lead to a massive drop in the quality ratings for some manufactures. The clearest example for this is Ford, which has been instrumental in bringing many of these technologies to the mass market. In the J.D. Power ranking, the company dropped from fifth place in 2010 to 23rd this year, showing that this new technology clearly leaves some buyers unsatisfied.
Mozilla just released Firefox 4, the next generation of its popular Internet browser. This new version is not just significantly faster than Firefox 3, but it also features a new, highly streamlined interface and a number of new tools that should make Firefox 4 even more popular among power users.
There are lots of new features in the new version of Mozilla’s browser (plugin isolation on all platforms, support for modern web standards like HTML5, new security and privacy features, etc.), but here are the key new features of Firefox 4:
In Firefox 4, Mozilla’s designers worked to keep distractions to a minimum and reduce the interface clutter in favor of providing more screen estate for the Web itself.
Gone, for example, is the menu bar in the Windows version. Instead, similar to Chrome and Internet Explorer, all the options are now available in one menu and the tabs have moved up to the top of the window. Bookmarking, too, has become easier and faster and just takes one click now.
This doesn’t mean that Firefox 4 was dumbed down, though. A lot of cool functionality for power users is just a bit hidden but easily available. You can use the URL bar to switch between tabs, for example.
That said, though, I ran both the SunSpider and Kraken benchmark on Firefox 4 and compared it to the latest developer version of Chrome (11.0.696.16). On average (after three test runs on a Mac) Firefox 4 easily beat Chrome. (Kraken: 4211.7ms vs. 4963.5ms; SunSpider: 189.2ms vs. 212.5ms).
Benchmarks can only convey so much about how fast the browser feels, and most users won’t notice any significant differences between most modern browsers. Firefox 4 does feel significantly faster than any earlier version, though, and I can’t help but think that it also feels faster than Chrome now.
Most of us now work on multiple computers and Internet-connected devices every day, but it’s still surprisingly hard to keep bookmarks between these machines in sync. With Firefox Sync (formerly known as Weave), you can now easily keep all these machines in sync. All you have to do is type in your password (generated by Firefox) and Mozilla will keep your bookmarks in sync. Syncing to mobile versions of Firefox is coming soon, too.
It’s worth noting that Google Chrome offers a similar feature, too.
App tabs allow you to, as Mozilla puts it, “give a permanent home to frequently visited sites like Web mail, Twitter, Pandora or Flickr.” Your apps then live in small tabs on the left side of your tab bar.
These app tabs will also alert you when something has changed in the web app (like a newly arrived email). This doesn’t work perfectly for all apps, though. Firefox watched for the site’s title to change, which most web mail providers do, but most other sites don’t.
I prefer Mozilla’s implementation of this feature over Chrome’s, because it defaults to loading all the links you click on in the app tab in a new tab.
If you become a regular user of app tabs, also consider installing the Easy App Tabs plugin, which allows you to turn a regular tab into an app tab by simply double-clicking on any tab.
Installing Plugins Without Restart
Yes, other browser developers already offer this (and didn’t spend close to two years developing their software), but for Firefox’s power users, this is a major update. Developers have to support this feature, so not every add-on will install without restarts just yet, but there are already quite a few out there that do.
As Nightingale told me, 40% of Firefox users today have installed add-ons. Today, close to 80% of these add-ons are compatible with Firefox 4 and more compatible versions are coming online every day. The new built-in add-on manager also makes finding and installing interesting extensions a lot faster and easier.
Here is another feature mainly geared towards power users that stays out of the way if you don’t want to use it. Panorama allows you to visually organize your tabs into groups. You can, for example, open up a new group for the research you are doing and another one for your web mail. The two stay separate from each other. I know many people who love this feature, which made me include it here, but it’s not ideal for how I use the browser. Give it a try, though – it might just save you a lot of trouble and enhance your browsing experience.
One trend that has become very clear at this year’s CES is that the Internet is slowly making its way into our cars. Of course, you can already browse the Net and play music from Pandora through your smartphone, but the next generation of cars – and especially electric cars – are making the Internet an integral part of the car’s feature set.
Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevy and most other major car manufacturers are introducing connected cars this year. These cars will all either feature fully integrated built-in Internet access through on-board wireless modules or, as is the case with Toyota’s Entune multimedia system, use a smartphone connection to enable this functionality.
Ford’s new plug-in Focus Electric, which it officially launched at CES today, for example, features a built-in wireless connection that connects the car to the cloud and allows owners to communicate with the car from their smartphones and through a mobile-optimized website. With SYNC, MyFordTouch and AppLink, Ford will allow owners of some of its cars to run apps like Pandora and control them through the car’s built-in entertainment system and control their features by voice.
While Ford was the first company to take this technology mainstream, a number of other manufacturers are now picking up on this trend as well. Toyota’s Entune will bring music from Pandora, Internet radio courtesy of IHeartRadio, restaurant reservations from OpenTable and search and maps from Microsoft’s Bing to some of its 2012 models.
Third-party manufacturers are also getting into the game. Harman, for example, introduced a 4G wireless module for LTE networks that will allow drivers to bring the Internet to their older cars. This system will feature real-time traffic updates, games, streaming video and will give passengers access to the full Internet.
What is driving this trend?
First of all, the proliferation of smartphones has allowed us to become accustomed to having ubiquitous Internet access wherever we are. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that we expect the same from the most expensive piece of technology most of us own: our cars.
Harman's In-Car Internet System
Another factor that’s driving this trend is that – unless you are a real car enthusiast – the main differentiator between cars in the same category today is technology. Touchscreens, voice recognition, access to your Pandora stations and – on a more basic level – an easy and working system for pairing your phone with your car over Bluetooth can be powerful factors when consumers make their buying decisions.
For electric cars, having Internet access in some form is virtually a must. With their limited range (generally around 100 miles), knowing where the next charging station is can make our break your trip to the grocery store. This data is changing rapidly, however, as new stations come online almost daily, so the manufacturers need to have the ability to update these cars’ navigation databases remotely. Bringing the car in to the dealership once a month to update the GPS system isn’t exactly a practical solution.
In some ways, this is turning cars into the ultimate gadget (and is also a challenge when it comes to usability). Just look at the Focus Electric, for example, which (assuming I counted right) features 18 buttons on the steering wheel alone, has to small LCD screens right in front of the driver and a large one in the middle console.
Full Internet Access and Any App You Want in Your Car? Not Quite Happening Yet
For now, most manufacturers are not bringing the full Internet experience to the car yet and only allow a limited set of apps on their dashboards. There are good reasons for that. The car industry is highly focused on safety and a malfunctioning app that takes over your audio system, for example, and suddenly overrides your volume settings due to a software bug, plays AC/DC at full volume and startles you to the point where you have an accident is a major liability and could cost a company like GM millions.
So for now, your smartphone is your best bet for getting online in your car (while you are in the passenger seat, of course), but your next car itself could be transmitting maintenance data over the Internet while you’re driving down the highway, allowing you to open and close your doors with the help of a smartphone app (Ford and GM are introducing this for their electric cars) and sending you a text message when its battery is running low or when it notices that you forgot to plug it in over night.
With SYNC, Ford was one of the first car manufacturers to connect its cars to the Internet and brought relatively high-end technologies like voice recognition and in-car WiFi to the mass market. Now, the Michigan-based company is taking this a step further with the introduction of the MyFord Mobile app for the battery-powered plug-in Focus Electric.
Ford didn’t specify its partners yet, but this technology will be powered by an on-board wireless module that will use standard cellular technology. The data from the car will be stored on a secure server in the cloud.
The MyFord Mobile apps will be available for BlackBerry, Android and iPhone, as well as in the form of a mobile web app for HTML5-capable devices and even WAP-enabled feature phones. With this app, Focus Electric owners in the U.S. will be able to check on the status of their car from anywhere in the world and monitor and control vehicle charge levels, plan their trips and pre-heat or cool their cars before they even leave their house. The app will also allow Focus Electric owners to open and close their cars’ doors remotely. Other features include locating the car with the help of the vehicle’s built-in GPS system and controlling the car’s charging state remotely.
Ford even added some game mechanics to the app. You can win achievements for “for driving and ownership milestones that can then be posted to your Facebook or Twitter account.”
Maps from MapQuest
Ford partnered with MapQuest to provide owners with the ability to find nearby charging stations – a feature that’s a must for any electric car and which also comes standard on the electric cars from Ford’s competitors like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt.
As the locations and availability of local charging stations continues to change and evolve – and given that you can’t just carry a spare battery with you if you run out of juice – it’s virtually a must for this first generation of mainstream electric cars to offer this as a standard feature.
Smarter Charging Courtesy of Microsoft
Microsoft is providing Ford with the technology behind the car’s “value charging” feature, which allows owners to program their cars to charge during off-peak hours when their utility prizes are the lowest.
The App as a Key Component in Vehicle Ownership
According to Ford, this app will be a “key component in the electric vehicle ownership experience” and Focus Electric owners will find that a lot of the apps’ features are also available inside the car courtesy of a redesigned MyFord Touch interface. The mobile app will also feature the company’s SYNC Traffic, Directions and Information Service (TDI) which made its debut as a standalone iPhone app in late December.
Mozilla is slowly marching towards the general release of Firefox 4. Today, the non-profit launched the 8th beta version of its flagship browser. As expected, after 8 betas, there aren’t any major new features in this latest version (though Mozilla promises to add a “do not track” feature before the final release). Instead, Mozilla is now focussing on fit and finish. In today’s new version, the focus is on making it easier to set up Firefox Sync and the new look and feel for the add-ons manager.
The new version also offers improved support for WebGL for 3D graphic visualizations on the Web.
Sync, Add-Ons and a Cool WebGL Demo
The new Sync interface, which allows users to keep their bookmarks, history, passwords and open tabs in sync across different machines and platforms, makes it easier for users to get going with Sync.
The add-ons manager received a nice interface overall and now feels far more polished than before.
As for WebGL, just give this demo a try after installing the new version. It’s easy to see why Mozilla thinks that WebGL, in combination with HTML5, will allow for a whole new range of highly graphical and interactive apps on the Web that don’t need to resort to third-party plugins like Flash.