Taking Skype for Business on the road with BMW’s iDrive system

Microsoft has recently announced that through a partnership with BMW, it will integrate Skype for Business into cars that are equipped with BMW’s iDrive system. While there is nothing particularly unique about a car manufacturer trying to incorporate additional tech into their vehicles, this particular announcement seems to have solicited a surprisingly strong emotional response from the tech community.

Some people have expressed outrage, because they believe that in-vehicle Skype will make our roads more dangerous. Others applaud the decision, because they believe that it will help them to be more connected and productive while they are on the go. Still other people have predictably used the announcement as an opportunity to bash Microsoft. In any case, I thought that it might be fun to weigh in with a few of my own thoughts.

In-car Skype for Business: What does it do?

So far there has not been a great deal of technically specific information released regarding what we might expect from BMW’s Skype for Business integration. It has been revealed that users will be able to attend Skype meetings through the car’s entertainment system, and that the system will allow users to interact with their calendar, contact list, and to-do lists. BMW has also announced that it is going to be adding Cortana integration to some of its vehicles.

This isn’t new

skype for business
BMW Group

The first thing that came to mind when I read the BMW announcement was that this idea isn’t new. Although I don’t think any automotive manufacturer has integrated Skype for Business natively into a vehicle before, Microsoft has long been involved with connected vehicles.

Back in the late 1990s, a company called Clarion introduced the AutoPC. The AutoPC was a Microsoft-powered car stereo that supported roughly about 200 voice commands, and could autonomously make phone calls, find directions, or play a music selection. While such functions are commonplace today, such technology was unheard of 20 years ago.

Of course, the AutoPC never gained mainstream acceptance. It’s steep price tag, subscription requirements, and the collapse of the dotcom bubble ultimately led to the device’s demise. Eventually however, Microsoft formed a partnership with Ford and created the Sync system.  Sync provides a variety of hands-free capabilities that are similar to those of the AutoPC.

I have actually owned a couple of Sync-enabled vehicles. As much as I wish that I could say that Sync was awesome, it suffered from a few problems. First, it was kind of buggy. The system on my 2013 Ford C-Max has been known to shut down, turn off accessories such as the radio, or perform other completely random actions. These glitches don’t happen every day, but they do happen once in a while.

A second problem with Sync is that if you want to use speech controls, you have to memorize a set of commands. Sync (at least the version installed in my car) is really picky, and requires you to use just the right words or phrases. It does not understand variations of its built-in command set.

The third problem with Sync is that it is dated. I have owned my C-Max for four years, and the car’s electronics have not evolved to keep pace with technology. Sure, there have been some map updates, and I think I remember installing some bug fixes at one point, but there haven’t been any major OS or application-level changes.

So, what about BMW?

skype for business

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to stay away from the road safety debate and focus purely on the technology. With that said, one of the big arguments that’s being made against Skype for Business integration is that the technology is somewhat redundant. Smartphones can already run Skype for Business, and there are solutions for connecting your smartphone to your car.

Although I have read editorials in which the technology has been described as having absolutely no benefit beyond what is already available in a smartphone, I have to disagree. Having apps such as Skype for Business and Cortana natively integrated into a vehicle is convenient. It’s also good for those technophobe executives (and we all know at least one) who just can’t seem to figure out how to connect their smartphone to their car.

I also think that having Skype for Business integrated into a car could end up providing a better overall experience than trying to use the smartphone version while on the go. I have no idea whether the vehicle version is going to support voice only, or if it will support the same rich feature set that is available on other platforms, but for the sake of discussion let’s assume that BMWs will be equipped with a full-featured Skype for Business client.

Being that some BMW vehicles are equipped with a heads-up display, it may end up being possible to use the vehicles HUD for on-the-go videoconferencing, or even for viewing presentations without taking your eyes off the road. The image doesn’t need to be big enough to block the driver’s view. A large thumbnail on the HUD might be enough to get the job done. Again, this could potentially pose safety concerns, but I will let you decide that one for yourself.

Consider the consequences

skype for business

As cool as BMW’s technology sounds, there are a few potential consequences to the use of in vehicle Skype for Business that I have yet to hear anyone discuss. The first of these potential consequences is the way that the technology might impact your privacy. I can just imagine being on a conference call and having my GPS chime in saying something like “turn right on Ocean Drive.” Suddenly, the people that I am meeting with are left wondering why I’m headed to the beach, instead of working like everyone else.

I can also imagine what it might be like to use the technology with kids in the car. I’m not a parent, but I can just picture someone being in a conference call and having their kid speak up and say something like, “Wow, no wonder you said your boss was a jerk.”

There is also the potential for the technology to be abused by valets. I am assuming that BMW will probably implement some kind of safety feature to lock valets and other unauthorized users out of the system — but that is still unknown.

Another negative consequence that I am envisioning is that having in-vehicle Skype for Business carries with it the potential to extend the workday. Now I know that a lot of people absolutely hate the commute to and from work, but back when I had a “real job” I actually used to look forward to my afternoon commute.

As we all know, working in IT is stressful. That hour that I would spend in the car after work each day gave me time to decompress and relax a bit before I got home.

In contrast, however, imagine a situation in which everybody has Skype for Business in their car. The commute could turn into part of the workday. You might be expected to start working an hour earlier, and wrap it up for the day an hour later. But let’s take things a step further. We all know people who have major road-rage issues. Imagine someone like that being forced to participate in a conference call during the rush hour commute. The resulting work environment could quickly become very hostile.

Use it — or not

In principle, I have nothing against having Skype for Business integrated into a vehicle. Like any other technology, it could be put to good use, or it could be abused. Ultimately, it will be up to each individual vehicle owner to use the technology in a responsible way. And of course there is no law that says that a driver has to use a feature just because it is built into their car. If someone prefers to use an app on their smart phone, or to simply enjoy a moment of solitude during their commute, then that is their prerogative.

Photo credit: BMW Group

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