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Ford's Sync technology, developed jointly with Microsoft, has helped make its cars cool again, and attract younger buyers. Ford is currently in a dispute with a former engineer over ownership of pending patents on key SYNC technology.  (Source: AutoBlog)
Ford determined to keep SYNC's technology, so competitors can't get their claws on it

In the field of technology, its not always what you can do, but typically what you can do with the patents you own and license.  Thus after three model years of SYNC-sporting vehicles, Ford may have to cut a deal to avoid losing large chunks of the pivotal technology.

Ford SYNC is a pivotal in-vehicle technology developed in conjunction with Microsoft.  It debuted in the 2007 for the 2008 model year.  For those not familiar, the technology provides a multifunctional interface to many different gadgets and vehicle features.  Bluetooth phones are supported, as are USB devices, such as the iPod or Zune.  The system manages music, takes phone calls, voice commands (such as playing a specific song or artist), and even receives (and reads) text messages.

The wonder-system is in jeopardy, though, thanks to the departure of Joseph Berry, a senior Ford engineer.  Mr. Berry is is currently in discussions with Ford over pending patents that Ford has filed for SYNC technology.  He claims that he came up with much of the technology covered by these patents, which he is named as an inventor on, before he came to the company.  The technology covered by these patents drives many of the features that drive SYNC.  According to the Detroit News, Mr. Berry has been approached by other automakers looking to license the technology to make legal "SYNC-clones" of their own.

Mr. Berry is claiming ownership of Ford-filed patents on the transmission of data over a cell phone to a vehicle, which SYNC uses to support its second generation 911 Assist, Vehicle Health Reports and Traffic, Directions and Information Services features. 

DailyTech spoke with Ford company spokesman Alan Hall, who said that Ford was "not aware" of Mr. Berry holding any patents on SYNC technology, and that Ford is currently evaluating Mr. Berry's claims and speaking in communication with him, though he could not comment on details.  The patents referenced are pending -- so they are not yet in the public domain.  Mr. Hall added that Ford sees "no risk" of losing SYNC technology.  These comments appear to indicate that Ford will, if necessary, compensate Mr. Berry whatever it takes to retain ownership of features such as turn-by-turn directions from your cell phone, cell phone-driven in-car weather updates (or sports scores), and real-time diagnostic information.

Ford still remains firmly in control of the user interface (proprietary), the hardware (developed at Continental), voice recognition (Nuance Communications), and the OS/MP3 player interface/phonebook interface (Microsoft).  Thus, while the ownership of SYNC itself is not disputed, ownership of some of the system's most "wow" inducing features may be disputed.

SYNC is an essential part of what has grown the Detroit automaker's "cool" factor over the past couple years and helped it survive the recession, while its fellow Detroit automakers crumbled.  The technology helped Ford to reach younger consumers.  States analyst Erich Merkle of Autoconomy.com, "That's where Sync has been critical.  There's no question it has been part of Ford's recent success."

According to the Detroit News, Mr. Berry says he would be "happy to license" the patents to Ford.  Based on Ford's comments it seems likely a deal will be cut if Mr. Berry's claims are valid.  However, there remains a small possibility that the pair could be forced into a court battle if Mr. Barry insists ownership and tries to license the technology to other companies.  While Mr. Berry did indeed sign off on some patents when he departed, he says he was owed additional compensation which was never received.  Other patents he has not yet signed off on.

Walt Dorfstatter, the incoming president of GM's OnStar subsidiary -- a group reportedly in talks with Mr. Berry -- would merely comment, "We know who Joe Berry is."

Updated Wed. Sept 16, 3:15 p.m.: DailyTech received comments and clarifications from Ford spokesman Alan Hall, which are included above.





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