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Microsoft unveils new Windows applications for automobiles

November 23, 2010
A next-generation Microsoft Windows operating system for automobiles will launch this week in Europe, becoming the software giant's latest attempt to standardize basic automotive software. Eight to 10 manufacturers and their suppliers are working on navigation, safety and entertainment systems that will operate in tandem with the new platform, called Windows Automotive 4.2. It marks Microsoft's fifth version of the operating system and is designed to enable drivers to use hands-free phones and voice-recognition devices. The company will announce several new automotive partners as well as other features f the system at a telematics conference Monday in  Munich.  Any of the new features likely would be available in vehicles  in the United States in six months to a year. "We're trying to create a standard automotive software platform that can help drive down the cost of hardware so more people can have telematics capabilities and create the kind of robust business for applications and services that we see in the desktop and laptop world," said Dick Brass, Microsoft's vice president of technology development. Telematics refers to wireless communications products designed into vehicles. A few years ago, it consisted mainly of navigation systems in a few high-end cars and GM's OnStar service. Some form of telematics already is available on 90 models representing 19 brands in North America. Globally, the numbers rise to 200 models and 32 brands. Still, Brass said, with the notable exception of OnStar, telematics is very much an emerging market domestically. A key feature of the latest Microsoft upgrade is the shortrange digital wireless communications standard known as Bluetooth. A Nordic invention named for a 10th century Viking king, Bluetooth allows various components of telematics systems to "talk" to each other through radio frequencies, allowing drivers to check e-mail, get directions, call for help or even unlock the car if the keys are left inside. It also means they can integrate their cell phones and personal digital assistants with the onboard system. Michael Cherry, an analyst with the independent research firm Directions on Microsoft, said 4.2's benefit to automakers and suppliers is it eliminates the need for them to perform low-level programming. Microsoft will have taken care of that. But Cherry said he's not convinced Microsoft will find as viable a market in the United States as it hopes. "This could be technology in search of a market," he said.