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Driving innovation: Why Microsoft should buy Ford

This morning I awoke to news that US investors are apparently looking to the Ford CEO Alan Mulally as the next Microsoft CEO.

Could Ford and Microsoft prove an unlikely - but successful - fit?

Proof, if ever it were needed, that investors have the creative thinking ability of sheep: “Let’s take the chief of the one US car company not to end up totally on the skids, and put him at the top of a tech company that seems to be heading the same way.”

How exactly do these people make their money? Oh, they don’t (except for themselves).

But as Microsoft makes its moves into the world of devices and services, what about turning that around? What, for example, if it were to buy Ford?

The recently announced Nokia purchase makes sense at a number of levels, but breaking into the dominant duopoly of the smartphone business is fraught with challenges.

The motor industry, however, is much more fragmented – and an industry that (relatively speaking) has been as yet little disturbed by the waves of change that have impacted the world of media, finance and so on as a result of digital technology.

Look at the user interface of a car today (particularly a low budget car), and you will see something that is remarkably unchanged from the devices we were driving around in 40 or 50 years ago.

Someone linked to the motor industry that I know once said that the car dashboard is referred to in the industry as Manhattan – everyone wants to be there, but there just isn’t any space.

The car user interface is the sum of the parts of design by committee as each sub-system team (driving, heating, lighting, entertainment and so on) fights to get the controls to their bit of the automobile in a reasonable position in front of the drive.

Moreover, the car is one of the most important devices in most people’s lives, yet they remain stoically unconnected. Microsoft software already powers the UI of a number of Ford models – why not go the whole hog? The cash reserves that Microsoft has could buy the blue oval brand outright on current valuations.

Sure, Google is there already with its self-driving experiments, but my hunch is that safety regulations will keep those off the roads in most cases for quite some time to come. Microsoft could steal a march on the market if it were able to innovate without taking the quantum leaps that the Mountain View boys seem to obsess about.

It’s nothing but a thought experiment – but a curious idea nonetheless...

Matt Ballantine was Microsoft’s technology evangelist, focused on building the company’s relationships with the marketing industry, before leaving this summer to start his own company Stamp. He has spent the past two decades working in tech at the BBC, Reuters and Imagination.

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