Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp.'s new multi-media system, Sync, will be nearly impossible to detect inside an equipped vehicle, says a product development manager who heads up the project.

Other than a small microphone hidden in the mirror, a USB port and steering wheel controls, the system will be integrated completely with a vehicle's internal systems, says Gary Jablonski, product development manager-Infotainment Systems.

“It's a standalone feature,” he says. “The best way to think about Sync is to consider it a small PC added to your vehicle.”

Because Sync is not dependent on the complexity of a vehicle's stereo system, it is able to work with base radios in low-end Ford products, such as the Focus compact car, as well as high-end systems that incorporate a touch-screen navigation system.

“There's no question a 6.5-in. (16.5 cm) color touch screen is sexier, but on the lower end, all of our new Focuses are being produced with a pretty rich two-line, 20-character display (as) standard,” Jablonski says.

The simplicity of Sync's outward appearance belies its capabilities.

Run by an automotive version of Microsoft's Windows operating system, Sync will allow users to access mobile phones or digital music players, such as an iPod, through voice commands.

The system also will be able to digitally vocalize text messages from a cell phone or other device and read them back to drivers, allowing for hands-free operation.

Devices will connect to Sync via the USB port, which Jablonski says has been modified to stand up to the rigors of automotive use. “We had to make changes to make sure it's durable for the life of the car.”

Wireless Bluetooth connectivity also will be available.

A main priority was to ensure the system would be upgradeable. The simplest way to do that, without having customers physically replacing outdated components, was to make Sync reliant on external devices.

As devices become more and more sophisticated, they still will be able to easily connect with Sync. In addition, as cell phones, digital music players and other devices add new capabilities, Sync's software can be updated to accommodate them.

“It connects to the outside world with the device the customer brings in,” Jablonski says. “If I bring in a smart phone with Internet radio, I can connect with Sync. And if you look at smart phones and things they can do, such as traffic and navigation applications, those are all within reach of Sync.”

Some critics have argued that running a version of Windows will make Sync susceptible to the types of breakdowns that have plagued personal computers using the Microsoft operating system.

Not so, says Jablonski. “Microsoft has a certain reputation in the PC world but has had apps in autos for the better part of decade — and very well proven.”

Continental Automotive Systems supplies Sync's hardware.

Microsoft's automotive application currently is employed in a more primitive version of Sync called “Blue and Me,” which is offered in Europe by Fiat Automobiles SpA, Jablonski points out.

Sync offers limited connection to the Internet via devices equipped with the capability, such as a Blackberry. In the future, that connectivity may be expanded, Jablonski says, eventually possibly accommodating even laptop computers.

For now, Jablonski says his biggest challenge is keeping ahead of the technology curve and ensuring Sync maintains its cutting-edge abilities. In addition, Jablonski and his team are working to see that Ford outruns its competitors, as the auto maker will hold exclusive rights to Sync only through 2008.

“We have a big head start and are already working on (new) software,” Jablonski says.

Sync will be available on 12 vehicles beginning this fall, and Ford is confident it will be a strong selling point, especially for younger customers who opt for entry-level vehicles such as the Focus.

“The fact that you don't have to have a navigation system to have Sync is a major plus,” says Cisco Codina, group vice president-North America marketing, sales and service. “That means with a good upgraded radio you can put Sync in and that's terrific,” Codina says, declining to reveal how much Sync will cost.

“I think it's a great strategy. The people who buy those cars are the ones that grew up with technology,” he says.