Microsoft, Fiat drive car communications ahead

For many of us, the car has become a home away from home. So why not extend some of the digital services we use at home or work to the car?

A new partnership between U.S. software giant Microsoft and Italian auto manufacturer Fiat SpA, announced late last week, aims to do just that: develop hands-free technology that will provide telephone, Internet, music and other services inside cars.

The new technology, to be available next year, will be based on standard hardware and operate with Microsoft's Windows Automotive software, the Redmond, Washington, vendor said.

Short-range Bluetooth technology will play a key role; it will allow digital devices such as smart phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) to connect wire-free to an onboard computer system, which will also provide Internet service.

New voice recognition technology will enable drivers to talk to the computer which will in turn dial a number, surf the Web or play a different song.

For those who want to hear their own selection of tunes, a USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection in the dashboard will let them play digital music stored in portable players.

"Communication and entertainment services for cars make sense because people are spending a lot more time on the road," said Michael Ransom, senior analyst for wireless services at Current Analysis. "These services extend popular home or desktop applications to the car."

Microsoft and Fiat plan to make their system interoperable with vehicles' software-driven controller area network for diagnostic purposes.

Although Microsoft is collaborating with several other big car markers such as BMW AG, DaimlerChrysler AG and AB Volvo, the deal with Fiat is the first time the software company has collaborated directly with a manufacturer in the development of a complete in-car computing system, it said.

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