Microsoft Drives Software Into Fiat Cars

Microsoft is calling “Shotgun!” as the software giant teams with automaker Fiat to feature its telematics applications designed for information and entertainment aboard new vehicles.

The companies’ “Blue&Me” plans, to be detailed at the 2006 Geneva Motorshow later this month, provide drivers of new Fiat cars with wireless integration with mobile phones and media players, as well as voice-recognition control of an interactive navigation and information system.

Blue Is Good

Microsoft and the color “blue” have long had a mostly negative assocation, with a typical Windows-powered computer’s crash characterized often as resulting in a “blue screen of death.”

This time, however, Microsoft is hoping “blue” is good, promising that Blue&Me will bring the company’s ease-of-use and interaction from the desktop PC world into the automobile. Featuring an advanced voice-activated system that provides audible input and output, the system will utilize Bluetooth wireless technology to connect to various handheld and mobile devices to the car. The system will also reportedly feature controls in the steering wheel and a dashboard display.

There is little question about the opportunity in the market for telematics software that provides information and connects cars to consumer gadgets, Jupiter Research Vice President Michael Gartenberg told TechNewsWorld.

However, the “fairly sophisticated set of technologies” of Blue&Me, including the ability to monitor a vehicle’s location, may make consumers leery, Gartenberg added.

Race to Market

Demand for Microsoft’s new auto software is yet to be determined, but competitors such as Apple’s iPod has attained some traction in vehicles, with 40 percent of U.S. cars manufactured in 2006 built ready for iPods, Gartenberg said.

Competition will mean more and more integration of devices into the car, more location-based software and services, and eventually access to home and mobile digital libraries, he predicted.

“This is going to be another battle for who controls the automobile, just like the battle to control the living room,” Gartenberg said. “With so much time people spend in cars, it becomes a very important conduit of digital information flow.”

Not a Smooth Ride

Others are less optimistic. While automobiles are increasingly outfitted with the power, sound and screens for user information and entertainment, they lack the seamlessness and ease-of-use to compel consumers, Gartner Research Vice President Martin Reynolds said.

“The problem is, [hardware] is not particularly well connected,” Reynolds told TechNewsWorld. “There’s an opportunity to connect cars up to a number of devices and create more opportunities. It just has to be done right.”The analyst said the PC interface is not ideal for the automobile, calling this Microsoft’s biggest Blue&Me challenge.

“It’s not seamless. It’s not easy,” he said. “There’s so much room for enhancement in the information and entertainment space.”

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