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Microsoft offers cloud to Baidu, gets autonomous car in return

Self-driving project could be a smart move by Redmond

Yesterday, China's search engine giant Baidu named Microsoft as a partner on its new open-source autonomous driving platform, Apollo. Technology analysts say the partnership is a smart call by Redmond.

Baidu originally announced Apollo in April. It's got cloud services, software and reference hardware/vehicle platforms. It was built using "vast amounts" of "actual autonomous driving scene data" and the company expects the tech will be running on urban roads and highways by the end of 2020, according to a statement.

Other open-source autonomous vehicle platforms include projects such as Then there are of course the Waymos, the Ubers, and many, many more moving into the self-driving car battlefield.

A spokeswoman for Baidu told The Register that Apollo's main goal is to "grow China's auto industry". But "it is also an open platform contributing to the global autonomous driving industry". Baidu has set up subsidiaries in Singapore and the US for collaborating with its local partners, she said.

According to the press release, Baidu is partnering with "Microsoft Cloud". Both Baidu and Microsoft are keeping any further details on the collaboration under wraps.

The Baidu rep declined to provide details. A Microsoft spokesperson also declined to clarify whether "Microsoft Cloud" meant Azure, Dynamics 365, or Office 365 – and merely noted Microsoft's "excitement".

But Gartner analyst Martin Birkner in Munich, Germany, told The Reg: "For Microsoft, it's an obvious move."

Microsoft already partnered with car manufacturers such as Ford to power SYNC, an infotainment system running in about 5 million cars which uses "Windows Embedded Automotive", a Microsoft platform for creating "in-car experiences" for automobile manufacturers.

"We won't be building our own autonomous vehicle but we would like to enable autonomous vehicles and assisted driving as well," Microsoft's biz dev lead Peggy Johnson said at a Wall Street Journal-backed tech conference in June 2016.

In March, Microsoft also announced a patent licence agreement with Toyota around connected vehicles.

But honestly, when it comes to connected vehicles, "they don't really have a good stake there today," Birkner said. The partnership could be a way for Microsoft to expand its infotainment and cloud service offerings into a ripe industry.

"The connected car is nothing but a client," he said.

He added that in the future there will probably be only a few big players in the autonomous ecosystem arena, a bit like how there are only a few major mobile operating systems today. It's not clear yet if open source or proprietary autonomous driving platforms will dominate, but it's logical that at least one of the top two, three, or four platforms will be in China – so Apollo may be a good choice.

Canalys analyst Mo Jia in Shanghai, China, told The Reg that Baidu has very strong AI and deep-learning expertise, while Microsoft is "quite good at cloud computing" but isn't really leading the AI world right now.

Microsoft couldn't really be expected to partner with a company such as Google for its AI know-how, he said, as Google is a clear competitor. But Baidu just so happens to be a competitor to Google.

"An enemy of an enemy maybe is your friend," he added. ®

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