Trying to thwart the dominance of Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod as an accessory for the car, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates is expected to announce a new partnership with Ford Motor Co. in a keynote address Sunday night to kick off the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show.
Gates is expected to be joined by Mark Fields, president of the Americas for Ford, to introduce Sync, a new audio and communication system to be included in 12 Ford automobiles for the 2008 model year.
Sync will allow for hands-free calling on a mobile phone, read incoming text messages to a driver, and of course, connect with a Zune music player.
Microsoft is expected to sell 1 million Zune players in the current fiscal year, a decent start by some estimates, but still tiny compared to the roughly 70 million iPods that have sold since 2001, not including an estimated 12 to 14 million sold during the 2006 holiday season.
Microsoft's deal with Ford is a key step toward building an ecosystem for Zune to help boost sales. Already more than 70 percent of 2007 model year autos offer iPod integration of some sort, according to Apple.
A Microsoft spokesperson said discussions with other automakers are underway to integrate Zune into more cars and trucks, but no deal is likely to come until the 2009 model year.
"It's not just competition with Apple as (music) player versus player, it's competing with player versus platform. Microsoft has to connect with an economy around Zune," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg told the Tribune in August.
Both Ford and GM announced agreements with Apple in August to integrate the iPod into autos. The Ford iPod initiative, called "TripTunes Advanced," is tailored specifically to integrate an iPod into a car's audio system.
With TripTunes, expected as an option in cars and trucks soon, an iPod runs through a special connection in the glove box and automatically charges while the car is on. Songs playing on an iPod are displayed on the car radio screen. All iPod functions, including volume and track selection, can be controlled by steering-wheel settings.
The setup with Ford's Sync program is similar. A USB hub is built into the dash so a Zune-or even an iPod-can be plugged into the dashboard. Controls to move through songs will be on the steering wheel or activated by voice commands.
It is expected to be offered as a dealer option for less than $1,000.
(Throughout CES, technology reporter and Tech Buzz columnist Eric Benderoff will file reports from the show floor in Las Vegas.)