Ford recruited 1,000 randomly selected employee volunteers to be testers.   (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Employees will be eager guinea pigs to MyFord Touch Upgrade build

When it comes to in-car infotainment, for better or worse Ford Motor Company (F) is in a league of its own.  While some other companies like Toyota Motor Company (TYO:7203) have launched competitive infotainment solutions, our experience with these products has been that they have far more limited features that Ford's MyFord Touch (MFT) infotainment system, and typically felt ungainly either in the sound or -- as in Toyota's case -- in the touch-screen/GUI department.

I. Employees Jump

This week, Ford is airing a beta build of the next-generation, dramatically refined MyFord Touch, which will be distributed in stages to 1,000 randomly picked employees.  First to get the build will be a handful of managers in southeastern Michigan, among the randomly selected group.

Ford hasn't given an official title to the update yet, but given how vast it is, we think the designations SYNC v6 (Sync v5==Jan. 2011 MFT update) and MyFord/MyLincoln Touch 2.0 seem appropriate.  For now the update is codenamed MyFord Touch Upgrade.

The new software features dramatically reworked menu systems, which have reduced the depth in takes to find options, improved consistency between menus, and improved system stability.

John Schneider, chief engineer, Infotainment, Ford Electronics and Electrical Systems Engineering, in a press release says that the update's changes were largely inspired by extensive customer feedback and market research by Ford.

Ford Upgrade
A peek at Ford's MyFord Touch Upgrade, which will land this spring. [Image Source: Ford]

"Ford has been listening and learning from our customers about their ownership experiences in order to continuously improve it.  The new upgrade exemplifies the importance of customer feedback and showcases the flexibility and speed we now have by leveraging software to evolve Ford technology,"he remarks.

He says employees are the perfect guinea pigs for the latest and greatest build, commenting, "Employees are a great source for quick feedback, and the best part is that they are eager to help.  Employees who have been MyFord Touch users since it was first launched will test the new upgrade on employee lease vehicles so they can provide us real-world feedback, helping us polish the final product before it goes to our customers."

The "Big Three" Michigan-based automaker has historically tested Sync with employees, but only in terms Durability and Quality stage, not via a general real-world beta road-test.

II. Exclusive Details, Commentary on the Beta

Ford has approximately 38,000 employees in its home state of Michigan, and approximately 4,500 of them had capable vehicles for the beta.  Of those a bit less that 25 percent were randomly selected (1,000) for the trial.  The beta base represents a little more than 2 percent of Ford's total deployed MyFord Touch users.

A Ford spokesperson tells us, "This employee beta test is an innovative way that compliments our standard quality assurance processes.  While we've involved employees for internal quality testing before, providing a software update for them to self-install and experience is a new practice for us."

The beta is, to our knowledge, the first such mass test software deployment to live vehicles.

Perhaps Ford is taking a page out its operating system partner Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) playbook.  Microsoft parlayed a mass beta test into overhauling the rough Windows Vista into the much better received Windows 7, generating record sales as a result.

Microsoft Windows 7 beta
Similar betas have worked wonders for software companies like Microsoft.
[Image Source: TechnoFriends]

We asked Ford about this, and their spokesperson, commented, "Yes, its fair to say that we are learning from the CE and IT industries what processes and tactics are possible with a software platform in terms of how to quickly respond and react to customer feedback ."

III. Struggles Could Pay Off in the End, if Ford Plays Its Cards Right

Ford hopes to use MFT/MLT's crucible of struggles to form the most advanced solution the market has to offer today.

MFT (and its companion SYNC v4/v5), the more-graphics intensive successor to the first-generation SYNC infotainment system, has had a bit of a rocky road.  It took a beating by reviews agencies such as Consumer Reports and The McGraw-Hill Comp., Inc. (MHP) subsidiary J.D. Power and Associates, both of whom [1][2] downranked Ford's vehicles due to them having the system on board.

To its credit Ford appears to be working to try to shape up its ambitious consumer control system.  While our initial go with MyFord Touch led us to believe Ford may have bitten off a little bit more than it could chew, in terms of revamping its system, our second tour with a newer version saw dramatic improvements to the system.  The only thing that marred the near-perfect experience was some stability issues -- namely several system reboots, which occurred soon after startup, particularly when syncing to a Bluetooth smartphone.

Aside from working to improve stability, GUI, and the quality of voice controls, Ford has been hard at working holding workshops to educate customers on how to use MFT/MLT.  This seems an excellent idea, as in our experience about half of MFT's complaints arose out of learning curve associated with the system, not malfunctions or design faux pas.  This knowledge gap has been slowly closing, thanks to Ford's efforts.

IV. The Upgrade is in the Mail

Another positive is Ford's more assertive planned approach when it comes to delivering the upcoming update.  Rather than waiting and hoping for customers to come in to a dealership or download the update themselves to a USB storage device in order to upgrade, as has been the case with some past upgrades, Ford is instead mailing the upgrade directly to customers for free.

The 250,000 existing Ford Explorer, Edge and Focus MFT owners will receive a USB flash drive in the mail which can be used to complete the install.  Ford's employee beta test will also test this strategy as the testers will be given a flash drive to perform the upgrade on their vehicles.

USB key shape
Ford will be mailing USB upgrade dongles to the 250k U.S. MFT owners this spring.
[Image Source:]

Ford is considering whether to do a similar program for its 200,000 MFT customers [source] in foreign regions.  The new operating system will ship -- to the U.S. customers, at least -- in the spring of 2012 in both USB stick form and aboard the new 2013 model year Ford Escape, Taurus and Flex.

Ford hopes to make the improved version of MyFord Touch almost standard across its lineup.  Its goal is for 80 percent of its Ford brand vehicles sold in 2014 (the 2015 model year) to have MFT aboard.  That may sound overly ambitious, but keep in mind that take rates on the SYNC (Gen. 1) were 70 percent in 2010.

The MyFord Touch is currently available for $995 as an option in the lower trim levels of compatible models.  But it also comes standard on the highest trim level of some models, such as the 2012 Ford Focus Titanium trim package.

We should get a chance to get some more details about the new system for you at the upcoming 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada this January.  We also look forward to getting some one on one time with the system next spring to weigh it against the two builds of MFT we already tested.  

Sources: Ford, News Factor

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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