DOUGLAS A. BOLDUC

Why Alan Mulally apologized to Bill Gates

Douglas A. Bolduc is managing editor at Automotive News Europe.Douglas A. Bolduc is managing editor at Automotive News Europe.
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Ford CEO Alan Mulally said that the first thing he did after agreeing to be a keynote speaker at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show was pick up the phone. He joked that he "called to apologize to Bill Gates" for taking a spot usually reserved for him.

The Microsoft chairman delivered a keynote speech at the world's largest consumer technology trade show between 2006 and 2008 before Mulally's own three-peat performance at CES from 2009-2011.

Gates and Mulally became friendly when the Ford boss was head of airplane maker Boeing, which, like Microsoft, is based in Seattle, Washington.

Mulally, who spoke at the Automobilwoche Congress in Berlin Wednesday, shared the fun anecdote while talking about the importance Ford has placed on its push to be a leader in in-car communications with systems such as Sync and MyFord Touch. Ford sees wider profits and a chance to attract 18- to 24-year-old consumers by offering more in-vehicle technology.

"Consumers will not accept it if they can't be connected while in the car," Mulally said during a question-and-answer session.

But Mulally and Ford are finding out something Gates already knows: being a technology pioneer can be tricky. Troubles with MyFord Touch contributed to Ford finishing 27th out of 28 brands in a recent reliability ranking from influential U.S. magazine Consumer Reports.

Mulally told the congress that MyFord Touch "gave customers too much choice so now we're simplifying it."

Since Gates has experience rebounding from bumpy product debuts, such as Windows Vista, and since Microsoft plays a key part in MyFord Touch, it might be time for Mulally to pick up the phone again.

You can reach Douglas A. Bolduc at dbolduc@crain.com.

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