Now it's Microsoft v Apple in your car

STEVE COLQUHOUN
Last updated 05:00 16/06/2012

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The decades-old battle for computing supremacy between Microsoft and Apple is about to shift from your desktop to your dashboard.

The car is the latest battleground for the two tribes to stake a claim for the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers, with carmakers being forced to take sides in a bid to try to pick which will become the must-have voice recognition technology.

It's like Blu-Ray versus HD DVD all over again - or VHS versus Beta, if you're old enough to remember it. It's worth remembering, too, that Microsoft is currently trying to crash Apple's party elsewhere by bringing out its own smartphone to take on the phenomenally popular iPhone.

It turns out that talk isn't cheap, with both computing giants spending up big to try to gain traction and widespread acceptance in an environment in which neither has previously been a player.

In one corner of the fight for in-car supremacy is Apple, which has signed up the likes of Toyota, GM (which owns Holden), Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Chrysler, Honda, Jaguar and Land Rover to its team.

In the other corner is Microsoft, bolstered by the small but potent trio of Ford, Hyundai and Kia.

Apple this week announced it would make its "Siri" voice recognition system available to its nine manufacturers, incorporating the technology utilised in the iPhone4S.

A steering wheel-mounted button is expected to operate the system that will be able to control most non-driving functions such as audio, phone, ventilation, navigation and displays.

It is expected to be able to understand and react to natural speech, rather than a limited number of staccato commands that many current systems require. It will also be calibrated to work in spite of background interference such as engine and tyre noise, and windscreen wiper operation.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been working on its own version of voice recognition software. Ford already has voice recognition embedded in many of its current models and also worked with Microsoft to develop Sync, an all-in-one car control systemfitted primarily to cars in the US but coming to Australia soon.

The latest generation of Sync was plagued with problems on its release early last yearbut is now selling well in the US, albeit still lacking the hype and must-have buzz that Apple manages to generate for its suite of products.

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Microsoft has another string to its bow that Apple doesn't, however, with significant experience in gesture control via its Xbox Kinect gaming system.

But with the push towards voice control driven by a desire to keep the driver's hands on the steering wheel and attention focused on the road, it's not yet known how gesture control might translate to performing in-car functions.

Forbes magazine speculates that Ford's deal with Microsoft precludes it from talking with Apple, and that Ford may have deliberately chosen to tread a different path to most of its direct rivals - such as Toyota and GM - in a bid to create a point of difference for itself.

Sound the bell. It's time for round one of Voice Wars.

-Sydney Morning Herald

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