Windows won't crash your car

commentaryMicrosoft had nothing to do with the Thai minister's BMW incident. I know because I called Redmond to find out.

COMMENTARY--A friend--one of those computer people who delight in pointing out technology's pratfalls--sent me a link to a news story this week. The headline read: "Govt. official trapped in car after computer fails."

"Security guards smashed their way into an official limousine with sledgehammers on Monday to rescue Thailand's finance minister after his car's computer failed," Reuters said.

Seems that the computer in Suchart Jaovisidha's BMW failed, automatically locking all the doors and shutting off the air-conditioning. "We could hardly breathe for over 10 minutes," the freed minister told reporters. "It was a harrowing experience."

My friend--who'd take a sledgehammer to Microsoft if he could--appended a second story to the Reuters report. It was a press release headlined, "Microsoft technology powers the navigation feature used in BMW's innovative new iDrive telematics system."

The juxtaposition of those two stories might remind some of you of an old joke: What would happen if Microsoft designed cars? They'd run perfectly for 50,000 miles and then explode.

Of course, Microsoft had nothing to do with the Thai minister's George Jetson-like experience ("Jane, open this crazy thing! Help! Jane!"). I know because I called Redmond to find out how a BMW could go from "the ultimate driving machine" to a sweltering tropical prison. For the record, Microsoft has no idea.

"We don't have any system that controls starting, stopping, door locks, engine control, or things like that," said Peter Wengert, marketing manager for Microsoft's automotive business unit. "We just handle the navigation system."

More specifically, Wengert's business unit is in the in-car infotainment business, providing software that improves the driving experience, not the car itself. And that business is no joke.

Microsoft has been in the automotive technology business for seven years. The company has deals with eight major automakers; besides BMW, they include Citroen, Fiat, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Toyota, Volvo, and Honda. Microsoft's most current car product, based on Windows CE .Net, is Windows Automotive 4.2. The newest version, released last month, adds Web services and Bluetooth connectivity.

With ever longer commutes and our growing dependence on all things digital, we don't want to be out of touch for the many hours we spend behind the wheel.

Microsoft says its new software architecture supports hands-free communication, access to information services, diagnostics, and wireless synchronisation with other mobile devices via Bluetooth. The software also supports limited voice recognition features, allowing drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and off the phone. Turn-by-turn navigation is also included.

Somewhat strangely, the high end of these Microsoft-powered systems can be found in a US$10,000 model sold by Toyota in Japan called the WILLCypha. Besides the information services I've already described, the WILLCypha's G-BOOK in-car information system also includes karaoke.

Microsoft also supports aftermarket automotive electronics manufacturers. Clarion still makes the Auto PC, first introduced in December 1998. The newest version, called Joyride, includes a Windows smartphone and an Xbox game system for backseat passengers.

While Clarion markets Joyride as a Microsoft-enabled product, don't expect the major automakers to do likewise. Wengert said most Microsoft technology will be under-the-hood--well, under the dashboard--and invisible to users.

Still, the company is predicting that, by 2007, 20 percent of new vehicles will include Bluetooth technology, and an estimated 12 percent of new automobiles will be equipped with 802.11-enabled hardware.

I asked my old friend Dick Brass, who invented the dictionary-based spell checker back in 1981 and is now VP of Microsoft's automotive business unit, about his goals for the unit. "We want to create a virtuous cycle, as we have on the desktop," he told me.

Translated, that means a world in which standard operating systems and application programming interfaces allow for a continual reduction in hardware prices, continual improvement in hardware performance, and a stable platform for software developers to build upon. The ultimate goal: having Windows dominate your car's information and entertainment systems as surely as it dominates the PC today.

Windows Automotive is a step in that direction.

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