When Alan Mulally unveiled the Ford Sync infotainment system nearly eight years ago, no other automaker had anything like it. And no one had ever heard of an iPhone.
But Mr. Mulally's push to put Ford Motor Co. on the leading edge of in-car technology later backfired with a glitchy, confusing upgrade to Sync known as MyFord Touch, and now Ford is toning down that aspiration as it works to undo the damage.
It's burying the MyFord Touch name and swapping out Microsoft Corp., its partner on Sync from the start, for a BlackBerry-based system from Panasonic, which developed Chrysler Group's well-liked system called Uconnect.
"Sync, when it was first announced in 2007, changed the industry," Mark Fields, who succeeded Mr. Mulally as Ford CEO in July, told reporters last week. "With MyFord Touch, we saw benefits, but clearly, we had some quality issues. We've addressed that and listened to customers."
Ford's new system, simply called Sync 3, runs on BlackBerry Ltd.'s QNX operating system, which is found on more than 30 million vehicles spanning 250 models. Sync 3 will be available starting with the 2016 model year. Ford will spread it throughout its U.S. lineup by the end of the 2016 calendar year, officials said.
With Sync 3, Ford is ditching the grand ambitions of MyFord Touch in favor of something it hopes consumers now accustomed to smartphones and tablets will find safer, easier to use and more familiar. Ford says Sync 3 is quicker and has more features than MyFord Touch, but it's not the sort of revolutionary technology that Mr. Mulally sought to make Ford stand out from the crowd.
"The focus here was not on creating a brand-new platform full of features that no one else had -- it was on creating something that would be exponentially easier to use than the old system," said Mark Boyadjis, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "I'm convinced that this will be a better solution than their current platform.
"Will it be something that makes people drop everything and run to the nearest Ford dealer? I'm not so sure of that."
That's a big shift from four years ago, when MyFord Touch embodied Ford's hopes that it could do for the automobile what Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs had done for computers. Mr. Mulally, a frequent speaker at the Consumer Electronics Association's annual International CES convention in Las Vegas, often described Ford as being a technology company as much as a car company.
Ford's inspirations for MyFord Touch included sci-fi movies such as "Iron Man" and "Minority Report," executives said in 2010, when Mr. Mulally unveiled the system and collected best-of-show awards from CNET and Popular Mechanics.
But in practice, MyFord Touch, with an 8-inch touch screen and a sleek look that eliminated many familiar buttons and knobs, frustrated drivers and sent quality ratings plunging. In the meantime, competitors introduced similar systems that consumers and influential reviewers liked better.
Ford went from scoring as the top mass-market brand in J.D. Power and Associates' 2010 Initial Quality Study to 23rd among all brands the next year.
Consumer Reports withheld recommendations of some Ford vehicles and memorably declared in 2012 that the MyFord Touch system "stinks." In a blog post, it said testers "wouldn't recommend dealing with the frustrations of MyFord Touch on a daily basis even to an adversary."
The publication, which has praised Chrysler's Uconnect system, sees more promise in Sync 3, writing last week: "Sync 3 looks like a big improvement, but it's hard to say how easy it is to use without trying it when driving."
Ford's chief technical officer, Raj Nair, said the company gathered 22,000 customer comments and suggestions in working on Sync 3 over the past 18 months and had thousands of people test prototypes -- more outside input than Ford had ever considered in developing a vehicle.
Sync 3 uses the same size touch screen as MyFord Touch, which is in about 55% of the vehicles Ford sells, but it has larger text, bigger touch zones and brighter background colors. By replacing the unloved "four corners" design of MyFord Touch with a row of six icons along the bottom of the screen, Sync 3 shows a family resemblance to Uconnect.
The system can automatically update itself using an owner's home wireless network. The more than 10 million vehicles Ford has sold with MyFord Touch will be unable to upgrade to Sync 3 because the hardware is different.
Ford said pricing for Sync 3, which will be standard on the Titanium trim level, will be comparable to that of MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch, which cost about $1,000 as an option. Ford won't have a distinct name for the Lincoln version of Sync 3.
BlackBerry vs. Microsoft
Even after MyFord Touch is discontinued, the Microsoft-based Sync system without a touch screen will remain available as the standard audio equipment on many models, probably for at least four more years, said Mr. Boyadjis, the IHS analyst.
The Ford contract is a big win for BlackBerry's QNX subsidiary, whose customer roster includes General Motors, Hyundai and Volkswagen. But Mr. Boyadjis said Ford's switch is not such a big blow to Microsoft, which is shifting away from operating systems even though they were a historical strength for the company.
In a statement, Microsoft suggested that its work with Ford does not end here.
"Microsoft is investing in products for the mobile-first, cloud-first world," a spokesman wrote in an email, "including future investments for the automotive industry's connected vehicles."
--Nick Bunkley and Gabe Nelson are reporters for Automotive News.