Can Volvo Save Microsoft?

November 20, 2015

Today is the 30th birthday of Microsoft Windows, the operating system everyone loves to hate. It's remarkable that Windows has survived this long -- though to be fair, neither it nor its maker are quite what they once were. However, a new partnership with Volvo could potentially give Microsoft a much-needed boost.

THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN

Not so long ago, Microsoft seemed invincible. Millions of beige boxes in homes, schools, and businesses ran its clunky, bland, ubiquitous operating system. Microsoft Windows was the software of communication, of commerce, of money. 

Then came some developments that Microsoft failed to foresee. Our internet connection speeds picked up and became more reliable. Many programs that once had to be installed locally could now run in the cloud through browsers -- browsers Chrome and Firefox that had kept up with the times, unlike Microsoft's sad Internet Explorer.

Around the same time, our devices began to shrink. Handheld devices like the iPhone put the power of computers in our pockets. Microsoft stumbled, late to the game with its own mobile operating system, which failed to make much of an impression and is now losing market share alarmingly fast.

DREAMS OF DASHBOARDS

The one field in which Microsoft has clearly been proactive has been automobiles. Years ago, the company glimpsed the future of driving and began working with Ford on infotainment and telematics systems to keep drivers entertained and on the right road.

But while Microsoft deserves credit for jumping into that arena, it has suffered from being at the vanguard. The company has made many, many mistakes that those who follow in its footsteps won't have to repeat. 

For example, Ford SYNC -- once referred to as Microsoft SYNC -- has drawn lots of interest from consumers, but after using it for a while, they often come to hate it. Some even file lawsuits. And that's to say nothing of the many tumbles Ford has taken in quality surveys, nearly all of which have been blamed on SYNC.

Last year, Ford announced plans to part ways with Microsoft. (It said it was planning to hook up with Blackberry, which was a little weird -- and even weirder now that Blackberry seems to be making the shift to Google's Android operating system.) Things were not looking good for the folks in Redmond.

ENTER VOLVO

Ironically, Microsoft's salvation could come from one of Ford's former properties, Volvo -- now owned by Chinese megacorp, Geely. Today, Volvo announced that it was planning to partner with Microsoft in using HoloLens, a holographic computer, to explore new ways that customers might shop for and purchase cars.

Volvo's Björn Annwall says that "HoloLens offers the freedom to create a bespoke experience which customers can steer themselves. Imagine using mixed reality to choose the type of car you want – to explore the colours, rims, or get a better understanding of the features, services and options available".

HoloLens could also increase the reach of dealerships by allowing them to take the computer on the road. They'd be able to offer demos in malls or festivals, without the complications or expense of bringing in actual vehicles.

Based on what we've seen in video clips like the one above, that seems like a strong plan. HoloLens certainly has a "gee whiz" factor that could be attractive to consumers, especially those who like to customize their rides. That said, Microsoft should act fast, before Google and/or Oculus (now owned by Facebook) swoop in and eat Microsoft's lunch.

Volvo also raised the possibility of collaborating with Microsoft on autonomous driving tech, but there wasn't any firm commitment. Given the rapid progress we've seen from Google and Tesla on this front -- not to mention what may be going on behind the scenes at Apple -- Microsoft may be late to the party once again.

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