Palm partners to get in-vehicle wireless applications

Eyeing the installed base of more than 200 million cars currently on the road, Santa Clara, Calif.-based handheld maker Palm Inc., after-market auto supplier Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. and software tool vendor MobileAria Inc. agreed to develop services and content around the Delphi Communiport Mobile Productivity Center (MPC) that will ship later this year.

The Delphi MPC is both a software development platform and a piece of hardware. It was created for Palm V devices and comes with a dual cradle for the Palm handheld plus a cellular phone. With a built-in 32-bit processor, flash memory, an FM transmitter, and the Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products NV speech recognition engine, the MPC platform will give car owners a way to add on wireless telematics services to their current vehicles. Telematics are in-car computing systems.

Pricing is not firm, but it will be about US$400, according to Delphi officials.

Although there is a large installed base of potential customers, as well as about 17 million new cars rolling off auto assembly lines in North America annually with less than 10 per cent having telematics built in, one industry analyst said that from a practical point of view, the number of consumers that may want anything beyond the usual telephone voice capability may be limited.

“It’s one thing to be ordering a pizza and get cut off from a wireless system that is at best fragile; it is another to be trying to sell 10,000 shares short. People don’t trust wireless yet to do serious transactions,” said Amy Wohl, president of Wohl Associates, in Narberth, Penn.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that the auto industry, wireless providers and handheld manufacturers are making a heavy dollar investment in products and research and development to put telematics inside cars.

“We’ve booked US$2.9 billion in [manufacturer] contracts [for telematics],” said Bob Schumacher, director of Mobile Multi Media Business Line at Delphi Automotive, in Kokomo, Ind. Among its manufacturer customers Delphi includes OnStar, Freightliner trucks, Sirius and XM Radio.

Later this year, users will be able to go to any electronics store to buy an MPC system with a variety of installation choices, including mounting the MPC dual-cradle in a cup holder. The unit plugs in to the cigarette lighter port and once the Palm V and cellular phone are docked, the information is shared between the two devices and applications can be accessed through voice commands. Because the system includes a small FM transmitter, it uses the factory-installed car stereo system to receive commands and communicate back.

“You can make cell phone calls, speak commands like ‘address book’ or ‘dial,’ and even have e-mail read to you. It speaks to you over the radio system of the car,” Schumacher said.

Currently, there are about 113,000 Palm developers, and any application designed for the Palm can be speech-enabled and run on the MPC platform, including Web browsing and e-mail, according to Tom O’Gara, president and co-founder of Mobileaira, in San Jose, Calif., the company that is developing the middleware and services for the MPC platform.