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Microsoft Offers In-Car Internet Search Service To Automakers

The service comes as automakers begin to embrace the Internet, starting with a wireless connection option on Chrysler models beginning next month.

Microsoft is trying to position itself as the go-to technology provider for automakers, just as the Internet begins to makes its way into cars. The company this week said it will offer hosted Internet search services for automakers and their business partners developing automobile infotainment systems.

The service, Microsoft Live Search for Devices, will be hosted from a Microsoft data center in Washington, said a spokesman. Automakers, for example, could use it for localized search services on in-car navigation systems, he said.

It's not hard to see how Live Search could be extended to autos. Consider that Ford navigation systems let drivers search for such things as gas stations, local pizza joints, and ice cream parlors based on their GPS coordinates, yet this information comes off a CD, and drivers must regularly order new, updated CDs for the latest information. If a navigation system was connected to the Internet via a cellular network, it could ping Live Search running on Microsoft-hosted servers to find local ice cream parlors based on the auto's location.

These are just possibilities, of course, since the Internet hasn't yet made its way into vehicles. But that's changing.

Beginning next month, Chrysler will offer a new wireless Internet service, called UConnect Web, on all its 2009 models. Intended for passengers, the services lets people use their smartphones, laptops, digital cameras, MP3 players, and other devices to connect to the Internet via an in-car wireless router that uses a 3G cellular network. The installation cost is about $500, plus a $29 monthly service charge.

The Internet could be a differentiator for struggling automakers such as Chrysler, and Microsoft wants to be front-and-center as automakers and their partners consider Internet search and other capabilities for in-car navigation and entertainment systems. Microsoft doesn't have any deals in place for Live Search, the spokesman said, but it does have a well-established relationship with Ford for its hands-free, voice-activated infotainment system called Sync.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Internet use in autos is safety and liability concerns -- safety advocates, such as California's Governors Highway Safety Association, have reportedly raised red flags on UConnect Web (Chrysler has maintained that the system is intended for passenger use).

Yet it's hard to imagine the Internet not infiltrating the automobile as it has every other aspect of consumer life. And Microsoft doesn't want to miss the boat; it says this is just the first of many hosted services it plans for automakers and their business partners, as part of its new companywide "software + services" business strategy.

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