Car crazy: Microsoft in the driver's seat

The software juggernaut that conquered the desktop is racing to get Windows into your next car. Detroit's new song: Have iPod, will travel Photo gallery: Microsoft revs car Windows

DETROIT--Microsoft wants your next car or SUV to run Windows.

It's no joke. The world's largest software company is revving up to position itself as the largest supplier of software to car manufacturers, with a custom version of Windows CE controlling everything from in-vehicle entertainment to satellite navigation.

"We're providing the end-to-end telematic system," says Peter Wengert, an electrical engineer who is now a marketing manager for Microsoft's Automotive Business Unit. Telematics is the auto industry's term for networked cars.

Microsoft is racing to take advantage of what appears to be an inexorable trend toward smarter cars. General Motors says software and electronics already are responsible for more than one-third of the cost of a typical automobile, and an IBM executive predicted this week that the figure will be closer to 90 percent in five years.

Implanting Windows into automobiles makes sense for a company whose share price has been mostly stagnant for four years. While PC sales have slowed and are expected to enjoy future growth rates only in the single digits, in-car computing remains a young market. Also, Linux has become a real threat to Microsoft on desktops and servers--but it's not as established in the automotive arena.


What's new:
Microsoft wants to provide the software systems for ever more complex and entertaining automobiles.

Bottom line:
Microsoft isn't the only one. A lot of suitors are lining up with entertainment systems and such, hoping to turn tomorrow's cars into GPS-tracked living rooms on wheels.

More on in-car technology

The giant comes a-courtin'
Microsoft accelerated its efforts to woo car makers with one of the largest booths at a Detroit conference this week, where a Hummer H2 and a Volvo--both outfitted with versions of --drew curious crowds. Windows Automotive is based on Windows CE, which has also spawned spinoffs for handheld computers and mobile phones, and offers licensing fees between $3 and "under $100."

Inside the Hummer were microphones and speakers connected to a Windows box (typically a 300-400 MHz PC with 32MB of RAM and 32MB of flash memory) hidden under the back seat and outfitted with a GPS receiver and Bluetooth wireless technology. The idea is that drivers will use their own Bluetooth-equipped cell phones and existing wireless provider to link up to the Internet, especially MSN services that can provide road-related information on demand.

"When I say, 'Get my driving directions,' I can say 'Get my cheapest gas,'" Wengert said. "It finds the nearest gas station and the cheapest gas station because it knows the location of the car." Wengert also demonstrated how the in-car speakers could be used to make phone calls, but with less luck: it took him four tries before the computer got the phone number right.

Windows Automotive, by the way, does not share a network with the low-level systems of a vehicle--so a software crash won't result in, say, brake failure.

Microsoft's entry into the automotive market isn't exactly new. Since 1998, the company has been selling Windows-based navigation systems that show overhead maps on LCD screens in the dashboard. Some two dozen models from 10 car makers use that relatively expensive technology, Microsoft says.

Making the LCD screen optional, however, makes the system cheaper and reduces worries about distracting drivers. Starting with its 2005 models that go on sale in a few months, Fiat will offer Microsoft's hands-free technology as an option on 23 models. (Fiat sells cars under the Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari brands.)

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