Microsoft exec Peggy Johnson tells us why Nissan is betting big on Microsoft's car strategy

Peggy Johnson MicrosoftBusiness Insider/Michael SetoMicrosoft EVP Peggy Johnson

Microsoft’s executive VP of business development Peggy Johnson, the company’s chief cross-industrial diplomat, says she had one big question after CEO Satya Nadella hired her away from Qualcomm in 2014:

“What’s our automotive strategy?”

With competitors like Apple, Google, and even BlackBerry signalling that they were increasingly interested in the growing market for internet-connected vehicles, Johnson was surprised to find that Microsoft’s efforts in the space were kind of scattershot, selling very narrow bits of software for very specific needs, making integration a pain.

To close that gap, Microsoft on Thursday unveiled the Connected Vehicle Platform, a selection of pre-integrated services to help car manufacturers build better software. That ranges from Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant in the dashboard, to maps and navigation, all the way up to using Microsoft-powered artificial intelligence to predict when, say, a transmission is going to fail.

And Nissan is going to be the first company to go all-in on the Microsoft Connected Vehicle Platform; in a keynote session on Thursday, the company committed to using it in its entirety to build the next generation of software for its cars. And yes, that means that the next wave of Nissans will have Microsoft’s cheerful Cortana on standby to answer your questions.

Companies don’t have to use the entirety of Microsoft’s platform as they build their car software: “We have learned it’s not a one-size-fits-all market,” Johnson says. If a company has a navigation system, or a database, or a virtual assistant they like better, Microsoft will meet them in the middle.

“The platform is open, it’s agile, it’s extensible,” Johnson says.

As for why car companies would want the Microsoft Connected Vehicle Platform, Johnson would remind you that unlike Apple or Google, Microsoft is definitely not working on making any cars of its own.

“We’re in a different space than some of the major companies coming out of Silicon Valley,” Johnson says. “We are not going to build a car.”

The payoff

From Johnson’s perspective, there are benefits for drivers and manufacturers alike.

With intelligent car systems increasingly helping with actual driving — from limited features like lane assist, eventually all the way up to full, autonomous self-piloting functionality — Johnson sees the car as a place to increasingly be productive.

For instance, Volvo announced a deal to put Microsoft Skype for Business in its cars this week, with plans to explore using Cortana, too. Nissan is going all-in, with Skype and Cortana in its cars.

Volvo, Microsoft BandVolvoSome Volvo cars can be operated with the Microsoft Band wearable.

For manufacturers, too, there are benefits. As cars become more complex, she says, manufacturers have a hard time dealing with the increasing amount of data generated as people drive their cars. The promise is the ability to get a better sense of customer behaviour, or to predict when a part is going to fail. But the challenge is sifting through all that data.

And Microsoft is pretty good at that, with a wide variety of database and artificial intelligence technologies that can help. Just pick and choose the right mix, Johnson says, and Microsoft can help at any point along the way.

“We want to package this up for them,” Johnson says.

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