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 on 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 importantly, 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 car maker can customize and re-brand the system for its customers. Microsoft Auto does not include an end-user UI, which is developed by the car makers 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 US 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 US$400 or so. Ford's US exclusivity agreement ends in November.

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