Elgan: Your car — the ultimate 'mobile computer'

Hate Vista, laugh at Zune, dismiss Windows Mobile? You just might love Microsoft's Windows for cars

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates expressed his goal many years ago to put "a PC on every desktop, a PC in every home" — all running Microsoft software, of course. He didn't mention a PC in every driveway.

Microsoft wants to turn your car into a Windows machine (please, no "crash" jokes). And Microsoft isn't alone. In-dash "infotainment," emergency and diagnostic systems — called telematics — is a fast-growing sector and, more important, one that will make cars more fun and safer to drive.

A huge number of companies and researchers are working on transforming your automobile into the ultimate "mobile computer." And why not? Cars have available electrical power, space for electronics, a captive audience and a central role in our lives.

You may hate Windows Vista, laugh at the Zune media player and completely ignore Windows Mobile, but Microsoft seems to be making all the right decisions about its Windows for Cars product, which is really called Microsoft Auto.

Driving in-dash computing

In the past, telematics was for high-end luxury cars only. But Microsoft and Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group announced this week that the companies will "co-develop" the "next generation" of infotainment systems.

In other words, you'll be able to get Microsoft Auto in Hyundai's cheap cars within two years. Microsoft Auto represents "telematics for the rest of us," if you will.

Microsoft Auto, by the way, is the name of the operating system. Each automaker can customize and rebrand the system for its customers. Microsoft Auto does not include an end-user UI, which is developed by the automakers using Microsoft tools and specifications.

The Hyundai-Kia implementation of Microsoft Auto, which has not yet been named, will be as powerful as a small laptop and will behave like one, according to Microsoft. It will get firmware updates via USB at the dealer when you bring the car in for service, for example.

Most current Microsoft Auto customers are driving Ford or Fiat cars using a Microsoft Auto-based, Ford-co-developed system branded Sync in Fords and Blue&Me in Fiats.

Ford buyers — some 130,000 of them, apparently — seem to love Sync. And some automakers like it, too, because they don't have to build an entire operating system from scratch.

Sync is sold in the U.S. exclusively in Ford models as part of a deal announced back in January of last year. The Sync upgrade is available only on a few models and typically costs an extra $400 or so. Ford's U.S. exclusivity agreement ends in November.

The future of telematics

The newish current version of Microsoft Auto, which is 3.0, lets you stream music from — and control — mobile phones, iPods, Zunes, Zens and other players via Bluetooth. You can also surf the Internet via Internet Explorer. It also supports GPS. All of this is voice-controlled using technology developed by Nuance Communications.

Microsoft's leading competitors are General Motors, with its OnStar offering, and Hughes Telematics, which is available mainly in Mercedes and Chrysler cars.

OnStar specializes in handling tasks by telephone and focuses on safety, handling roadside emergencies and help with directions. OnStar offers a feature all cars should have. You can find directions on your PC via MapQuest, then click a button to send the directions to your car, which will give you turn-by-turn directions. GM charges each of its 5 million subscribers $19 or $29 per month for basic or deluxe service, respectively.

Hughes is working hard on integrating the user-facing telematics with engine computers, providing drivers with airline-pilot-like details about what's happening with the oil, fuel economy and tire pressure. Like Microsoft and others, it's also working on integrating GPS maps with reports about traffic delays to reroute you efficiently.

While Microsoft Auto focuses on infotainment, OnStar emphasizes roadside assistance and Hughes Telematics offers great car diagnostics, all three are planning to add features from the others in an all-out battle for your dashboard.

Future systems based on Microsoft Auto, for example, will likely offer OnStar-like emergency services, including something already announced for Sync called 911 Assist. It will be cheaper, though, because the car will communicate via your cell phone, not the car's. Microsoft will compete with Hughes' strength in diagnostics with another already-announced feature called Vehicle Health Reports.

It's also likely that Microsoft will integrate a technology called Clearflow into Microsoft Auto. Clearflow is a sophisticated artificial intelligence engine developed at Microsoft Research that, according to The New York Times, "incorporates complex software models to help users avoid traffic jams."

While Microsoft Auto, OnStar and Hughes Telematics all slug it out for dominance, Toyota, the world's largest automaker, is rumored to be working on a system to compete with all three.

What's so great about telematics?

Drivers are already bringing more and more gadgets into their cars — in-dash music players, GPS devices, cell phones and iPods. Telematics promises to coordinate all of this and add more functionality.

ABI Research predicts that some 30 million cars will be sold with telematics within the next five years, which represents nearly half of all new cars.

This is an exciting sector for car and gadget freaks. There is so much potential here. Future telematics systems, for example, could securely (and with privacy) broadcast the location of cars to a central server for processing in order to provide everyone with real-time and very accurate traffic reports. Systems could also direct you to known parking availability, babysit and monitor your teenage driver and provide basic "black box" functionality in the case of an accident.

I believe that telematics systems will become so useful, fun and desirable that the quality of these in-dash wireless computer systems will become a major factor for new car buyers. The next 10 years promise giant improvements in the whole car-driving experience.

Now if only gas were cheaper ...

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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