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Toyoda and Ballmer, at left, during the webcast.

The news today that Microsoft and Toyota are working on a cloud computing system for cars — described by the companies as a global platform for next-generation telematics applications — is the type of announcement that’s a little tough to grasp on the surface, in terms of the real significance.

So it actually helped today when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave a few example during a webcast from Redmond with Toyota President Akio Toyoda.

People will be able to control and monitor their car from anywhere, Ballmer explained. They’ll be able to turn on the heat or air conditioning while their vehicle is plugged into the grid. Or dynamically monitor miles until their next charging station from their GPS system. Or use a smart phone to check battery power or maintenance information remotely. Or use the system system for power management as cars connect into smart power grid.

Wait a second, that doesn’t seem a whole lot different from the things we’ve already seen promised, or actually delivered, from other automakers and tech companies.

That’s where the cloud computing angle comes in, apparently.

“Toyota will be able to deliver new applications/services in 170 countries where Toyota cars are sold. Historically this type of service was limited to only to major markets where the automaker could build and maintain a data center,” Ballmer said during the event. “Toyota will also pay for only computing power it uses, while scaling to support spikes in demand or new markets if need be.”

How does it differ from Microsoft’s work on Ford Sync? “The work around Sync has really been about an in-car device,” Ballmer said. “In fact, the partnership with Toyota is really about a platform for applications that can be delivered from the cloud … and it might be delivered to the in-car GPS system, it might be delivered through the phone with the car as an end point, but it’s a cloud platform.”

Explaining how the expanded relationship came about, Toyoda said he called Ballmer  in January and “shared my hope with him that we create something of great value, something promising for the future. Despite the size of the companies today, he said, “we have this DNA common to us, the DNA of a small startup venture.”

The first Toyota vehicles using Azure will be electric cars and plug-in hybrids available next year.


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