While Google, Uber, and (reportedly) Apple plunge ahead with plans to design self-driving cars, one tech giant has been noticeably absent from the conversation: Microsoft.
For longtime tech-watchers, that might seem a bit unusual in light of the company’s previous partnerships with the auto industry. For example, Ford and Microsoft joined forces nearly a decade ago to co-develop in-vehicle infotainment systems (which eventually hit the market under the brand name SYNC). Given its history and software expertise, Microsoft seems like a natural for autonomous-vehicle research.
According to Microsoft executive Peggy Johnson, speaking at the Converge technology conference this week, the company has no plans to build its own autonomous vehicle, although it will contribute software to the self-driving industry: “We would like to enable autonomous vehicles and assisted driving as well.”
Those comments come a day after Tesla CEO Elon Musk suggested at Vox Media’s Code Conference that Apple could eventually become his company’s primary competition in the electric-car arena—but not for many years: “I don’t think they’ll be in volume production until 2020.”
Combine that with Google’s recent partnerships with automobile companies—including its agreement to install autonomous-driving technology inside the next generation of Fiat Chrysler’s Pacifica mini-vans—and it’s clear that some of the world’s biggest tech titans view the car industry as the next ripe target for “disruption.”
Faced with that potential competition (not to mention the enormous expense of manufacturing four-wheeled hardware), it seems that Microsoft is going back to its old playbook: build software for others. The car becomes just another application hub, similar to a phone or PC. At least at this point, Microsoft doesn’t want to spend the time and money building a sophisticated system capable of steering a two-ton vehicle through the modern city; but it will offer the humans in those vehicles the ability to work on a document or watch a movie while they wait to arrive at their destination.
For app-makers, Microsoft’s entrance into the autonomous driving space may represent yet another opportunity to build for a new ecosystem. But the existence of such an ecosystem hinges on self-driving cars succeeding with consumers.