Microsoft had a big head start in the connected car race by providing the software that underpins Ford's Sync system. But as the connected car field has become more crowded and portable-device focused, rivals Google and Apple have entered the fray with the Open Automotive Alliance and CarPlay, respectively, while Microsoft and its Windows Embedded Automotive group has largely remained on the sidelines.
The company's code still runs a "good chunk of cars on the road today," noted Steve Teixeira, Microsoft's director of program management for the Internet of Things group, at last week's Build Conference. "We've been doing this for a while," he added. "People really rely on us. But what are we going to do going forward?"
That's been the subject of much speculation, especially since news broke last month that Ford is shifting its infotainment software supplier relationship to QNX, a division of BlackBerry that has been aggressively increasing its presence in the car. During the four minutes of an almost hour-long presentation, Teixeira proceeded to answer the question of what's next for Microsoft in automotive by debuting a new Windows in the Car concept.
What's notable about Windows in the Car is that it shifts Microsoft's strategy from a purely embedded approach to leveraging portable devices to bring content into the car—something that others, including Ford, have been doing for years now. Teixeira said that automakers have been "using a Windows kernel upon which they would build their own user experience. We really didn't have a point of view in the past on what should we paint in the dashboard."
As a brush, Windows in the Car will use the MirrorLink standard, which is supported by automakers including GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Volkswagen. All of these, with the exception of Volkswagen, also support Apple CarPlay, while GM, Honda, Hyundai, and Audi have signed on to Google's Open Automotive Alliance.
A Shared, Tile-Based UITeixeira said Windows in the Car will use projection mode, meaning that the UI for a portable device will be rendered—albeit in a safe manner—on a dashboard screen. This is similar to Apple CarPlay and, in fact, Windows in the Car looks a lot like Apple CarPlay (which was originally named iOS in the Car), although the interface will be familiar to users of Windows 8 and Windows Phone devices.
For example, during the demo Teixeira showed that the system allows "pinning" tiles for navigation, media, and other frequently used features to a Start screen. Swiping the screen makes a swooshing noise and switches between music, maps, phone, and climate control functions. When Teixeira showed the phone screen, it displayed icons for text and Facebook messages and had a "social" tab. As for media, he said users will have access to music on their devices as well as streaming content via Xbox Radio.
Teixeira added that "there's an opportunity for application builders to also participate in this ecosystem in a couple of different ways." This could be "to run any arbitrary app … and project that to the screen" when the car is parked. "But if my car is in drive mode, one of the things we'll aim to do is enable application builders to write apps that conform with … safe mode interface standards."
Apps shown during the demo included usual-suspect music streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn, as well as Trapster for finding speed traps and for State Farm insurance—maybe in case you do get stopped.
Teixeira didn't announce a launch date or any details on how the system will operate using a car's existing controls. But he added, "I don't want to touch tiny things on my phone; I want to use voice," indicating that, as with CarPlay, voice recognition will play an important role, whether it's embedded in the car or cloud-based a la Siri.
Teixeira said Windows in the Car is "a concept we're working very seriously on," but didn't name automaker partners. Because Microsoft already has established long-term relationships in automotive, it could make its push for a mobile piece of the dashboard a bit easier. But today it will find the dashboard much more crowded with competition, and from companies with a much larger share of the portable device market.