Ford moves on from Microsoft to BlackBerry

Ford chooses to drop Microsoft for QNX Software in SYNC, My Ford Touch systems

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®

DEARBORN, Mich. - Ford is not confirming the story, nor is Microsoft and QNX Software.

But the auto industry on Monday was blindsided by a Bloomberg report that says Ford is stepping away from its Microsoft-based SYNC and My Ford Touch telematics systems and moving to QNX Software's operating system.

The move away from Microsoft would have been a headline anyway because Bill Ford Jr. and Bill Gates made the initial move into groundbreaking hands-free telematics systems together more than five years ago as kindred spirits. Not to mention that Gates was eyeing Ford CEO Alan Mulally to take over Microsoft this year to lead yet another turn around and ultimately opted out.

But more intriguing is the new supplier Ford chose: QNX Software, a division of Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry. That's right, the pre "there is an app for that" Canadian handset maker that once owned the global PDA market [back when PDA was actually used as a known acronym for personal digital assistant] with its "CrackBerry." But as astounding as its success was [I once chased RIM co-CEO Jim Basillie around the Ren Cen trying to find out why he wanted to put a second NHL team in Toronto when he had that much money] BlackBerry became the poster child for just how quickly the personal electronics industry fortunes change. It also showed how quickly the fickle electronic consumer will move to something quicker, shinier and with more apps; just because he or she can.

BlackBerry purchased QNX Software in 2010 just as the BlackBerry was trotting out to pasture. But QNX is no slouch. Its claim to fame is in heavy industry offering operating systems for shipping, air traffic control and automobile telematics. So while the BlackBerry needs a lifeline, the company is likely propped up by QNX, and Ford buying truckloads of in-dash devices will likely give the parent company the shot in the arm it needs to get back on track.

You may wonder why Ford would make such a move. The truth of the matter is car companies make decisions almost daily to change suppliers for parts. This is big business and moves every bit as quickly and mercilessly as the electronics industry. But SYNC and My Ford Touch cost Ford a lot. Analysts will quibble over whether Ford suffered financially as a result of these balky electronic albatrosses, but there is no doubt the Blue Oval's sheen was tarnished.

Back when Ford and Gates appeared together at the Glass House in Dearborn to introduce the first serious move by a major automaker into the telematics arena there was great hope in the marriage. It soured quickly and at a very inopportune time. Ford, having not taken a government loan after installing Alan Mulally as CEO who did his masterful turnaround magic, who changed the company's debilitating and parochial global culture into the One Ford mantra, was enjoying incredible and ground breaking headlines. For the first time in a generation or more, consumer magazines and industry quality rating surveys praised Ford for its top-notch vehicle quality. Ford was on a serious roll.

Then the My Ford Touch system took hold in the worst possible way. Customers could not figure out how to make it work. Dealers were deluged with complaints and Ford had to reboot the system and have code rewritten for every car. It was balky, it was uncooperative and the resulting complaints took Ford's momentum away on the quality front, all but disappearing from the surveys.

It hardly seemed fair that a balky telematics system cost Ford its place in automotive history in such a way when you consider it wasn't a poorly-placed gasoline tank or badly made tires that had so hurt Ford previously. But there it was and Ford obviously grew tired of the poor reputation it gained as a result.

So, there is a new telematics system in Ford town that no doubt will not come with the same severe price tag Microsoft is so famous for demanding. Will it work? Well, Ford no doubt has tested QNX within an inch of its life and feels it is not going out nearly as far on a limb with QNX as it did so unsuccessfully with Microsoft.

It was a curious day, an even more curious headline that in the end makes all the sense in the world. It was time to move on.

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