"The functionality on this is entertainment-based," said Paul Russell, Sync marketing manager. "But the key is being able to deliver it to the customer in a safe way. That's holistically how we look at it. It's communication and entertainment."
But Ford did add 911 Assist to Sync for the 2009 model year to compete with OnStar's emergency response service. And OnStar knows it has some work to do to offer all that Sync does in entertainment.
"We know we've got to be there. GM's infotainment strategy is totally addressing that," Preuss said. "Next year and the years to come, we're going to have more and more Sync-like features."
Said Edmunds.com's Newcomb: "What you're seeing now is OnStar is trying to play catch-up. They've announced some new features they'd like to implement, such as receive text messages via voice and respond via speech."
OnStar also is working on an application that lets users update their Facebook status using speech.
An application is a software program designed to do a specific task. For example, GM recently came out with OnStar apps to provide remote starting and roadside assistance.
The competing systems are sold differently, too.
OnStar is sold through a subscription costing $199 a year. The price for the hardware is rolled into the sticker price. GM does not break out that information.
Sync costs $395 but carries no other initial fees. After three years, customers retain music and mobile phone service but must pay a $60 annual fee to continue Sync services such as turn-by-turn directions, traffic and personalized information such as sports scores, movie listings, horoscopes and stock quotes.
GM almost sold OnStar when the company filed for federal bankruptcy protection in 2009. But GM moved so quickly through bankruptcy that the sale never happened. And OnStar has benefited by having two GM CEOs with telecommunications savvy.
When Ed Whitacre, former CEO of AT&T, took the top post in December 2009, he decided to keep OnStar but ordered that it be streamlined, Preuss said. OnStar has been doing that and is now starting a new marketing campaign.
Similarly, current CEO Dan Akerson, who was CEO of Nextel Communications, saw value in OnStar.
Said Preuss: "One thing Dan Akerson has made abundantly clear to me is that, look, OnStar is an incredibly powerful telematic tool. Secondly, you guys really have a communications challenge."
In September, OnStar launched a new tag line: "Live On." The idea: Show the simplicity of using only a button to get such services as navigation, hands-free calling and emergency help.
OnStar wants the dealers to step it up, too, by talking about the telematics service when selling a vehicle. It also wants dealers to use OnStar's vehicle diagnostics and e-mails to customers to get customers back for service and future sales.
Preuss admits that only about half of GM customers buy the subscription service when their trial period ends. But he insists that's still good, considering OnStar has 6 million subscribers at $200 to $300 a year.