Microsoft doesn't woo customers so much as overwhelm them. If the company were a lover, it would be the kind who sends three dozen roses but spells your name wrong on the card.
That's what made last Friday's "soft launch" of Clarion's new AutoPC, a Windows-based in-car computer, so odd. By letting Clarion take the lead at the event and, apparently, in the AutoPC's engineering, Microsoft showed it may be learning a little of the art of seduction -- or at least how to get out of the way.
The latest front in Microsoft's "Windows Everywhere" crusade, the AutoPC is a car stereo on steroids -- with contact management, voice recognition, wireless messaging and a global positioning function (GPS) to help you find your way. If you use a hand-held or palm-top computer based on Microsoft's stripped-down Windows CE operating system, which powers the AutoPC, you'll be able to swap data with the AutoPC via its infrared port.
Setting aside the issue of whether or not we really need our e-mail to follow us in our vehicles, the AutoPC is an expensive replacement for your paper address book and Thomas Guide maps: It costs $1,299, or more than $1,600 for the GPS-enabled version, plus installation. Clarion and Microsoft are clearly hoping it will appeal to geeky audiophiles or stock-option-rich gadget lovers. Case in point: Microsoft says its own employees preordered 90 of the units.
If you already talk to your car, you'll have a head start getting accustomed to scanning the radio dial, loading compact discs and looking up names, all using spoken commands. The AutoPC talks back too, reading e-mail and directions and responding to queries such as "What time is it?" It's not KITT, but then you're not David Hasselhoff, are you?
Aside from the gee-whiz factor, the AutoPC is interesting for another reason: It's the first version of Windows that feels coherent rather than stitched together from ill-fitting parts. Not coincidentally, it's also the first Windows product whose direction was set by a hardware company rather than Microsoft itself.
AutoPC was Clarion's brainchild, not Microsoft's. (Ford's Visteon unit says it is also developing a similar in-vehicle computer based on Microsoft technology.) But Microsoft hasn't forced Clarion into bad design decisions or otherwise gummed things up as it's so prone to do in other product categories. Microsoft's imprint is on the AutoPC, but it's a surprisingly light touch.
It was mostly Clarion's show at the Friday product launch, as well. The AutoPC's debut -- which occurred simultaneously at West Coast electronics emporiums in San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle -- was small and underpublicized, the softest of sells. That's a far cry from most Microsoft product launches, which typically involve enormous auditoriums, bleachers packed with sweat shirt-clad true believers and all the subtlety of a nominating convention.
The San Francisco event took place at a Good Guys outlet, which -- though it isn't quite the Beverly Hills Bang and Olufsen -- has shed some of its street bazaar atmosphere thanks to a recent remodeling. Short speeches by Clarion, Microsoft and Good Guys executives took place around an AutoPC-outfitted sunflower-yellow Mercedes convertible that had been waxed to a warm glow. The Clarion executive introduced a video in which a chipper woman tooled around Anytown in her maroon sedan -- the Mercedes was apparently unavailable -- cooing to her AutoPC as if she were asking a preschooler how old he was.
Public relations people, who outnumbered the journalists, looked on serenely while nibbling croissants and sipping juice. It was more prayer breakfast than product launch, and the AutoPC itself proved to be different as well -- the most un-Microsoft of Microsoft's numerous "platform" initiatives.
Based on Windows CE, Microsoft's operating system for hand-helds and palm-sized devices, the AutoPC boasts an interface that works well on its small (256-by-64 pixels) color display. It doesn't make the mistake -- as many palm-sized devices, like Philips' Nino, do -- of trying to cram too many icons and menus into limited screen space.
There's a simplicity to the AutoPC that's very different from the bloat we've come to expect from Microsoft. According to Microsoft, the AutoPC's original interface looked a lot like Windows 3.1, but usability testers rejected that as far too complicated to navigate while driving. Thankfully, Microsoft's designers listened -- or Clarion made them listen.
A button on the console with the "flying pane" logo is the only overt reference to Windows as we know it. Pressing it brings up a list of eight standard functions, such as "radio" and "voice memo," some of which use icons similar to those found in the desktop version of Windows. You can use voice commands or a small, joystick-like device on the AutoPC's faceplate to move through the system. Navigation is logical, and customization options are numerous but not overwhelming.
Despite the surprisingly smart interface, the AutoPC isn't quite cooked, especially for its hefty price tag. For instance, the wireless messaging capability wasn't operational for the launch, and the GPS function doesn't track your position continuously but instead relies on a CD-ROM of street maps.
Still, the clean design of AutoPC shows Microsoft isn't fundamentally incapable of delivering a usable new interface. As the battle for market share among set-top boxes and dedicated Internet access devices heats up, that means the prospect of Windows Everywhere might not be the nightmare it sounds like.
As for AutoPC's future, Clarion's device will be available nationwide around the middle of January, after a grander launch at the CES show. Microsoft employees may have to keep ponying up to keep AutoPC's sales figures respectable, though. After a busy holiday shopping weekend, the Good Guys in San Francisco hadn't moved a single unit.