New system is easier to navigate at a glance, features improved voice recognition

Ford Motor Company (F) this morning pulled the wraps off a major update to its MyFord Touch (MFT) and MyLincoln Touch (MLT) (SYNC Gen. 2) infotainment systems.  The update will land next year and will be offered both preinstalled on new models and as an update to existing models.

I. Ford Looks to Forge Greatness from Criticism

MyFord Touch has had a rocky road.  The initial launch actually seemed to regress in the voice recognition department from Ford's first generation SYNC infotainment system.  A series of updates has improved that situation, as our testing showed in September.  But the system we tested was still suffering from stability issues, rebooting several times.

That said, Ford still is the leader in this category.  In early testing Toyota Motor Comp.'s (TYO:7203) Entune system was far behind Ford's system in terms of capabilities and featured a touch screen (which we were told would be the production model) which required you to literally jab it with your fingers in order to get it to respond.  In short, Ford may have stumbled with the original MFT, but the competition is still struggling to take advantage of that.

With MFT 2.0 (SYNC Gen. 3) (this isn't an official title as far as we know, but it seems an appropriate designation as it's the third major release of SYNC and second of MFT), Ford is looking to ensure that the competition doesn't get a shot at stealing its infotainment crown.

While the proof is in the testing, the paper release of MFT 2.0 looks very impressive.  The improvements are across the board in the following categories:
  • Improved GUI for less distraction
  • Faster and more responsive
  • Improved system stability
  • New functionality
  • Further improved voice recognition

Gary Jablonski the manager of the SYNC platform at Ford says the new look is the result of extensive customer feedback.  He comments, "The keys to continuous improvement are simple: Listen, learn and respond. That’s how we’re going to keep our customers happy.  Evolving the software with meaningful enhanced features was part of our plan from the very beginning. It’s no different than the experience with our smartphones and laptop computers – except now, it’s your car that gets better."

At its four customer clinics Ford not only helped show customers how to use the new MyFord Touch (and MyLincoln Touch) platforms, it also was carefully noting their experiences.  It reports interviewing "hundreds of customers" to get the input used in the design of the new system.

II. Better Voice Control, Better Visual Layout, New Options

Much of the improvements come in terms of the user interface.  

In order to reduce distraction, Ford has totally overhauled the graphics on the center touch panel.  It's removed non-critical information.  It's also made the fonts 40 percent bigger, wider, and bolded, reducing the time it takes to read options.  The menus have also been revamped to share the same pattern.  In total 1,000+ menus have been redesigned.

MyFord Touch Homescreen

This is a big deal as consistency is something other companies are struggling with.  A source at GM reports their upcoming infotainment system, code-named Next-Generation Infotainment (NGI) has dozens of disparate visual elements, all for the same functionality.  This is creating a bewildering mess of a system, which GM's engineers are trying desperately to untangle.

Other improvements to the interface come on the voice control side.  One annoyance in SYNC (even with the solid Gen. 1) has always been the lag between pressing the button on the steering wheel and the system being ready to process voice input.  With the new system, Ford promises to most eliminate that lag, offering the near-instant response a first-time user would expect.

Voice commands will also recognize shorter commands.  For example "North Main Street" now can be simply referred to as "Main Street" and songs can now be verbally selected without additional parantheses-bounded information like the album titles.  

MyFord Touch

And there's even a handful of new commands to boot, like a "Tune to the <VARIABLE> game", where the variable is your favorite sports team.

III. New Features

The complete and utter overhaul of the user interface, Ford also is adding some new features to the table.  One popular request was improved support for audio books, so Ford has added touch-screen commands for audiobooks from Inc. (AMZN) online store

Ford has also partnered with Sony Corp. (TYO:6758) to add support for the Gracenote album art database.  Gracenote is used by Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iTunes (and Apple's devices) and online services Pandora, Google Music, Spotify, and AmazonMP3.

The navigation system has also received improvements courtesy of NAVTEQ (a Nokia Oyj. (HEL:NOK1V) subsidiary).  The system will feature smarter routing via historic traffic patterns, photorealistic images of highway junctions, and improved 3D maps with more landmarks.

MyFord Touch Navigation

Mobile device support has also been improved in several ways.  First, USB support for tablets has finally been added.  Ford's press release mentioned the Apple iPad.  We're checking to see if popular Android tablets (like Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KS:005930) Galaxy Tab) are supported.

Additionally, handsets with firmware support can now automatically discover and sync to SYNC, removing the need to connect them by hand.  And when calling on a connected headset, Ford's audio system now exercises improved noise-cancellation to remove road noise and other background sounds from your phone call.

MyFord Touch Calling

IV. Availability and Final Words

The new system will be available next year, starting with the 2013 model year Ford Escape, Flex, and Taurus.  An update is also coming to the MyLincoln Touch system in the 2013 2012 Lincoln MKX.  For existing MFT owners, you will receive the update in a USB stick mailed to your home address (that's pretty easy).  Just plug in the stick and the update will install and you'll be transported to the world of MFT 2.0.

Ford has been quite lucky thus far.  According to reviewers -- including us -- Ford dropped the ball a bit with MyFord Touch, but its competitors kindly did not capitalize, failing to make a better system.  Arguably this has illustrated that implementing the kind of voice control system that Batman or Jean Luc Picard used for decades in science fiction shows and movies is a bit harder than one might think -- even with our amazing current technology.

With the MFT 2.0 Ford definitely sounds like its headed in the right direction.  It has less than a year to bake the release version, so the pressure is now on for the company to deliver on its big promises.  We had our share of criticism for MFT 1.0, between its voice control issues, and later the rebooting mess.  But we're very eager to test this new system.  If Ford can deliver on its promises, this could be a home run for the company.

Source: Ford

"When an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song." -- Sony BMG attorney Jennifer Pariser

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