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Mar 29, 2012
Microsoft and West Coast Customs: Unlikely partnerships create better business and technology
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Similar to a concept car, Project Detroit was created to inspire developers to think about building apps and automotive technologies of the future -- connected-device scenarios featured in the car incorporate Kinect for Xbox 360, Xbox 360, the Windows operating system, Windows Phone, Windows Azure, Bing, Ford Sync and more (Image courtesy of photographer Armando Arorizo, Microsoft and West Coast Customs)

Microsoft, best known for software and the Xbox gaming system, recently worked with West Coast Customs, best known for 'pimping' cars, to create a concept car called Project Detroit -- based on the automotive architecture of a Ford Mustang -- that can not only move with 400 horsepower, but also provides immediate access to multiple Microsoft technologies including Windows, Kinect and Bing.

The body of the car, a replica of a 1967 Mustang, was made by Dynacorn, but under the hood are all the components of the much more powerful 2012 model. Rather than a traditional ignition, the car starts with a smartphone app called Lumia 800, which, in addition to firing up the engine, allows the user to locate and also lock and unlock the car remotely. The fully digital instrument panel comes equipped with eight different choices for 'skins' that the driver can choose from to customize the display. There is also a display that utilizes telemetry (which allows measurements to be made from a distance) and a navigation system fully integrated with Bing maps, which gives the driver turn by turn directions and also shows nearby points of interest.

Project Detroit can be remotely located, unlocked and started all from the Viper SmartStart app for Windows Phone (Image courtesy of Microsoft)

As with many modern day Ford vehicles, Blue Oval’s SYNC system, which connects via the user’s mobile phone, is used for traffic information and voice control for audio functions and hands-free phone calls. It can also call for help and transmit the vehicle’s location to emergency services if an accident occurs.

On the lighter side, this Mustang has as much entertainment value as functionality. The passenger’s side has a tablet built right into the dash so that riders can play Xbox 360 -- complete with Kinect --while the car is in motion. The Kinect is also connected to motion sensors in the front and back of the car which let the driver know when pedestrians or other hazards are nearby. External speakers mounted in the rear windshield (which can also double as a projection screen to stream videos -- or send other drivers a message) even allow people inside the car to speak to anyone close by through pairing with a mobile phone and 4G hotspot built into the car. Road rage just took on a whole new meaning.

The aggregation of dissimilar technologies -- even through an unorthodox architecture platform like a classic car -- is a trend that is being accelerated by customers as they seek more value through a better experience by linking technologies that have an affinity for each other and by the manufacturers as they seek to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

The latter strategy can be seen in products of Hewlett-Packard (HP) -- a hardware manufacturer in the personal computing space -- that has been going to market with laptops that integrate 'Beats' audio technology. 'Beats by Dre' is an earphone and audio sound product line developed by well-known rapper and producer Dr. Dre. Beats earphones are considered high-end with some costing more than $300. HP laptops -- traditionally considered a hardware commodity -- are now perceived as having more value, especially with those who enjoy music because of the well-branded audio capabilities provided by Beats.

This sort of thinking, which can sometimes detract from the product’s brand, was a deliberate decision by HP. They could have touted improvements of their own to the audio systems in their laptops, but instead elected to incorporate the technology of a popular standalone product into the architecture of their systems.

Beats by Dre's Studio headphones offer precision-engineered, advanced speaker design, powered amplification and powered noise cancellation (Image courtesy of beatsbydre.com)Why? The answer lies in both the thinking of designers -- who understand the limitations of over specialization based on product knowledge -- and a new generation of social media driven customers.  These customers may understand nothing of product design, but they have extensive knowledge of new technologies that complement their lifestyles.

Really good designers, those who innovate and change the way we view the world, have an interesting tendency to look for advancements -- and value -- outside of their core areas of knowledge. Of course, in product design, the juxtaposition of concepts has always been a strong driver of technological innovation. At the time of their introduction, many 'mash-up technologies -- take for example, the 2001 creation of a digital music player by Apple that also required the creation of an ecosystem of content -- often seem more entertaining than revolutionary. Apple, once only considered a computer hardware manufacturer, now has a market capitalization in excess of $570 billion. Besides making Apple the most valuable company in the world, the company’s market value is a testament to designers’ ability to develop both standalone and integrated technology products that are used by other organizations as critical complimentary ingredients to their own technologies.

Automobile manufacturers in the past two decades have benefited -- or not, in some cases -- by their decisions to integrate trending technologies into their cars. For example, Ford partnered with Microsoft to incorporate Zune music players into their automobiles.  This decision, which made sense on paper, made 2011 an interesting year as Zune was later put out of its misery by Microsoft due to poor sales. However, to contrast, during the same year more than 90 percent of all new automobiles sold in the United States had an iPod adapter as a standard feature.  Therefore, while the benefits of integrating and aggregating outside technologies are immediately obvious, so are the downsides.  When merging products, companies risk dependence on other technologies and a lack of control over several variables that affect the experience of a flagship product.

Project Detroit features multiple, touch screen, dashboard displays, including one on the passenger side (Image courtesy of Armando Arorizo and Microsoft)Enablement -- like including an iPod adapter without manufacturing an MP3 player -- seems to be a safe workaround for many companies who acknowledge the importance that secondary technologies can have on their products but are not worth taking the risk of tackling in terms of new development. Enablement also provides some immediate market visibility for the platform without having to necessarily formally co-brand with the independent technology provider. 

The integration of new technologies -- which in some cases seem to outshine the flagship product -- will continue into the future. Not surprisingly, because of this trend, customers who were never targeted for a particular product could now become some of its biggest advocates. In marketing, this is called the 'halo effect' and while it can be an unpredictable variable, it can also serve to show the power of integrating standalone technologies into an architecture or platform in their original form or with minor modification. These mash-up products -- like a Windows-powered muscle car -- can lead to wonderful creations that show that technologies can be adapted by users to create value based on their preferences as compared to telling users the value of a product.

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