For years, automakers have attempted to refine our dashboards, making them as slick, simple, intuitive, and interactive as our smartphones. For the most part, they have failed. Miserably.
Thankfully, smartphone manufacturers -- or rather, the companies that build the operating systems powering those smartphones -- have stepped up to the plate. Android is rolling out its infotainment system to Audi, GM, Honda, and Hyundai vehicles this year. And in what many see as a much bigger deal, Apple will launch "CarPlay" in Ferrari, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo cars before the end of 2014, with BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota to follow in short order. (Still no word on Volkswagen.)
Now, Microsoft has quietly entered the fray with a new product tentatively called "Windows in the Car". It's still in development, so there aren't any details about its real-world debut, but the demo video above gives you a sense of how it might look.
It appears that Windows in the Car will function in much the same way that CarPlay and Android for cars do -- that is, by pairing with a smartphone. Once that task has been accomplished, Windows in the Car will offer drivers access to their contacts, music, maps, and some apps, right on the center stack.
In other words: in 2014, OS designers have finally given consumers what we've been clamoring for since at least 2011, if not long before. The question is, can Microsoft be a big player? Here are some fact to consider:
1. Microsoft is late to the party. Again. CarPlay was announced last June (though at the time it was called "iOS in the Car", which makes "Windows in the Car" seem pretty lazy). Android's biggest announcement to date came in January. Windows in the Car was just announced over the weekend, and there's no projected timeline for its official rollout, though we'd be surprised if it arrived before 2015. As with the Windows Mobile operating system, Microsoft is very late to the dashboard party, and it's likely to pay a very big price for its tardiness.
2. Windows in the Car requires linkage with a Windows smartphone. Windows Mobile owns just 3.4 percent of the U.S. smartphone market -- and most of its recent gains are due to defectors from Blackberry. Combined, iOS and Android control 93.4 percent of the market -- and they're gaining too, at Blackberry's expense. In other words, it's not impossible that Microsoft can make a go of it on dashboards, but the company has a long row to hoe.
3. Windows Mobile doesn't have the same fanatical user base that, say, iOS does. A scan of some of the comments received on a recent CarPlay post suggests that many Apple fans would be more willing to change their car to match their preferred phone than ditch their iPhones. Would anyone say that about Windows Mobile devices?
4. Microsoft has few partners in the automotive space. Microsoft's longtime beau, Ford, dumped it for Blackberry (perhaps due to consumer frustrations with Microsoft's unwieldy Sync). Even Nokia -- a company that Microsoft partially owns -- is migrating to Android. Those aren't good signs for a project like this, which will require substantial partnerships to succeed.
5. It's a binary world. Most humans think in twos, in either-ors. Windows or Mac. Republican or Democrat. Britney or Christina. Right now, the prevailing binary in the tech world is Apple or Android. That's not to say that things can't change, but like Jan Brady, Microsoft may have a very hard time making its mark.
Are you a Windows fan? Detractor? Sound off about Windows in the Car in the comments below.