October 21, 2004 4:00 AM PDT

Car crazy: Microsoft in the driver's seat

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A little mood music for the ride
Another market that's viewed as ripe for computerization is in-car entertainment, which is still dominated by CD and, especially in larger SUVs and minivans, DVD players and video game players. That seems about to change, with billion-dollar electronics suppliers such as Thomson, Pioneer and Delphi saying this week that they'd like to find ways to let drivers take the equivalent of their home entertainment systems on the road.

Microsoft's answer is simple: because there's already a Windows box with speakers in the vehicle, just provide a connection where drivers can plug in their USB device, Compact Flash card, or SD Media card with audio files on it. (The Hummer has a connection on the dashboard.)

"What happens when I want to bring digital music into the car? It's a little tough to stream that over cellular networks," Wengert says. "Our philosophy is to put your music on a storage device. That's going to be a lot cheaper. People don't want to have to buy an iPod to play their music."

Apple Computer's wildly popular iPod does offer a USB connection, but in an effort to curb piracy, hides the music files when it's connected to a PC. Wengert says whether it will work on a Windows Automotive system is a "question for Apple."

Wengert argues that Microsoft is a more attractive option than Linux or other free or open-source operating systems: "Car companies want their supplier to have skin in the game. Who would Ford go to for support and help if they adopted Linux?"

Rival suitors
Microsoft is hardly alone among traditional computer companies trying to convince auto makers to take their technology for a test drive.

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