The Web takes to the road

Erick Schonfeld always said that if there's one place the Net has yet to catch on, it's the auto industry. Now there may finally be an answer to his prayers.

COMMENTARY-- Last October, in a column called "Why it's time for the wired car", I lamented that if there's one place the Net has yet to catch on, it's the auto industry. I went on to describe various navigation, communication, entertainment, and information services I'd like to have in my car one day.

Well, that day is now a little closer. MobileAria, a small startup in Mountain View, Calif., backed by Palm, Delphi Automotive, and a venture capital firm called Mayfield, figured out how to put the computer in the car and connect it to the Internet. The company did a soft launch this week of voice-powered software that turns your car into a hands-free computing environment. The software is currently available only in limited quantities in the Bay Area, but MobileAria expects a nationwide rollout with partners Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless to begin during the first quarter of 2002.

CEO Mike Orr gave me a demo a few months ago in the company's VW Passat. We sat in the car and a pleasant female voice told him, "You have 17 e-mails. Reading e-mail one ... " Orr could command the software to skip through e-mails or compose responses with preset canned messages or even a short audio recording, attached via a WAVE file. Alternatively, he could ask the system to look up the sender's phone number in his address book and place a call to that person immediately. The software could also check weather and traffic reports, dictate driving directions, and read news articles. Orr was able to do all of this by using simple voice commands and a small thumb controller strapped onto the steering wheel.

In addition to the MobileAria software, the system requires a laptop with a Bluetooth card that allows it to communicate wirelessly with other nearby devices, a Bluetooth cell phone such as the Ericsson T39 or the soon-to-be-released T68, a microphone and speakers (or headset), and a global positioning system locator. It's a lot of stuff, but MobileAria will sell you everything except the laptop for about $600, plus a subscription fee of about $25 a month. (If you already have a Bluetooth-capable phone and computer, the rest of the equipment will run you $300.)

The idea is that you download e-mail, stock quotes, and news reports onto your laptop, which you then stick into a pouch behind the driver's seat. Once on the road, you interact with the laptop through a microphone (voice recognition software translates your commands so the computer can understand you, and text-to-speech software translates the results the other way, back into sound). Most of the functions take place locally on your laptop's hard drive, but if the system needs to go out to a few content providers available through MobileAria's proxy server -- like Go2Online, MSNBC, Reuters, and WeatherBank -- it can do so through the wireless Bluetooth connection to the phone.

The system is far from perfect -- for one thing, no one else in the car can talk while you're barking out orders. MobileAria also has competition from an OnStar service called Virtual Advisor, a voice portal that lets you access e-mail, sports scores, the news, stock quotes, traffic updates, and weather reports. The main difference between the two is that with OnStar you need a constant wireless phone connection to one of the company's call centers, which means you're paying cellular airtime charges to use the service.

MobileAria's setup is a bit clunkier, but since your laptop is in your car, you have the advantage of downloading data onto it while you drive and then browsing at your leisure. More important, MobileAria gives you access to the address book already on your computer, and a calendar function is coming soon. It's a modest start, but at least it proves that the Web is ready to roll.

As an editor at large for Business 2.0, Erick Schonfeld contributes to the editorial development of the magazine, writes feature stories, and pens a weekly online column (Future Boy). Schonfeld is also a contributing editor for Fortune, where he has written about technology and investing for the past seven years.


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