WiMax keeps on coming. Sprint will launch mobile WiMax broadband access in Q4 2007. That means another form of wireless broadband that could be used in your car and one that will compete with the offerings coming from 3G cellular technology. Speed is predicted to hit 2Mbps to 5Mbps, which beats the pants off the 400Kbps to 700Kbps we get today from 3G cellular. Clearly, cellular will be under pressure to speed way up, and both services will be under pressure to come way down in price. Sprint forecasts pricing for mobile WiMax to start around $20 a month for up to 1GB of transfer, which isn't much--about 10 hours of 28Kbps audio streaming, by my rough calculations.
Think I'm nuts with all this in-car broadband stuff?
It's not just me. ABI Research says
the car is the next (and perhaps final?) big battleground for the major portal players, such as Google, MSN, AOL, and Yahoo. With in-car broadband and text-to-speech technology, you can really unlock the value of the local information that is built into Google Maps, CitySearch, Yahoo's many local editions, and the emerging Windows Live Local. Those are all compelling phone services, but the car is really enticing with its greater appetite for destinations and directions, not to mention a typically better interface--or at least a passenger who can devote a set of eyes to scraping info from a local-savvy portal.
Future collectible alert: cars with iPod adapters. You probably heard that Apple cut deals to get iPod adapters offered in a slew of cars from GM, Ford, and Mazda. All three of these carmakers could use a little hip ink these days, and maybe that's the best part of the announcements. Way too many GM and Ford products sell to an old, technologically lame consumer base. I also foresee a day not too long from now when a car with an iPod adapter seems quaint and collectible, as Bluetooth A2DP and maybe even Wireless USB connections take over and offer a standard way to connect portables to cars. Read on.
Has Sony regained its cleverness? The company's new MEX-BT5000 car stereo head unit seems to be the kind of in-car Swiss Army Knife of entertainment and communication I've been pining for. It automatically pairs with cell phones and other portables that have Bluetooth, which I admit are pretty rare these days, but the new A2DP Bluetooth profile is still fairly new itself. Of course the unit also contains an integrated hands-free kit for speakerphone capability with a cell phone. On the audio side, it handles MP3s, WMAs, and of course, Sony's hoary old ATRAC format, which has overstayed the digital audio party longer than Mel Gibson at a bar in Malibu. It's also sat radio-ready, but most importantly it's not a multi-thousand dollar part--MSRP will be $400.
It's not quite Fifth Ave, but Garmin is helping the cause of tech by opening a GPS showcase on a rather expensive piece of the Miracle Mile in Chicago's Loop. This must certainly be the first time a GPS products company has opened such a chic awareness spot. A la the Apple Stores, it will not just sell gear but have an array of factory-trained folks there who will hopefully be as genuinely helpful as Apple's Genius Bar staff.
Nav screens that look like NASCAR cars.
How happy are you with your in-car tech? What are your biggest gripes?
Tele Atlas, one of the big providers of map data for navigation devices, has just added branded McDonalds point-of-interest (POI) icons to its database that already includes Arby's, Bennigan's, Chili's, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Subway and Wendy's--and those are just the restaurants. Similar lists have been built up for stores, hotels, and gas stations. I agree branded POI icons on a nav screen speed the ability to find one of those brands, but it reminds me of the dreary fact that a lot of America looks the same, no matter where you go. It really saps the sense of adventure when going on a road trip; I feel like I haven't gone anywhere when Plano, Texas, looks like Mountain View, California.
No kidding. "The most common problems reported for (auto) multimedia systems are design issues, rather than defects/malfunctions." That's the overdue pronouncement from a new J. D. Power survey that ranks consumer satisfaction with all the fancy new factory multimedia systems available in cars today. Yes, we know they are largely capable. We just can't operate them! They interviewed more than 63,000 owners of 2006 vehicles, asking them how happy they were with their in-dash tech, including AM/FM, cassette player, single CD player, multiple CD changer, navigation system, and satellite radio. The stuff basically works, with Visteon and Clarion gear coming in at the top. (No, you'll almost never see their names; they contract-build this gear for carmakers, and often tell them what to offer, since automakers tend to be a bit clueless in the consumer electronics area.) But plenty of car owners said they couldn't figure out how to operate the gear, couldn't reach some of the buttons, or couldn't see the screen--all sloppy design issues. I plow through all of them in the process of doing our CNET car tech videos.
By the way, a navigation system is the number-one most wanted in-car technology, according to that J. D. Power survey--even beating out steering-wheel audio controls.
And after you get that shiny new car with a nav system, the next thing you get is a profound sense of futility. Who needs navigation help most days, unless you drive for a living? But I'm not only heartened by the progress at merging live traffic information into nav systems, but now XM Satellite Radio is gearing up to launch live parking space information. They're teaming with Standard Parking, which runs a bunch of lots, and Quixote Transportation Technologies, which makes parking-space sensor and polling technologies. Put it all together, and you'll be able to see nearby parking spaces in lots and garages. Hopefully cities will want to add this technology as part of new parking meter rollouts. I'm not sure what the business model would be, but it's time for all the players to start bundling these nav-centric, locally-aware services into low-cost service packages: nav, traffic, parking, branded POIs, and eventually, I suspect, locations of my friends based on their car or cell phone location.
XM calling. Alltel Wireless just announced it will stream a selection of XM Radio channels to its phones, which I believe is the first offering of that kind. There will be 20 XM music channels available on Alltel phones for a flat rate of $8 a month. Unfortunately several of those channels will include XM's dreadful "decades" channels (how come Sirius programs decade content so much better?). Alltel, a second-tier wireless company, is doing a good job of carving out an audio streaming niche to differentiate itself; the company also just announced it will offer a range of podcasts as phone streams as well.
I guess this is an endorsement for Sirius. Mitsubishi will make Sirius sat radio either standard or available on every car it makes starting with the 2008 model year. Of course, to do that Mitsubishi needs to stay in the U.S. market that long, which it claims it will.
Here's the latest on RF-Gate, the semiscandal wherein a range of XM and Sirius radios have been pulled from the market for emitting radio frequency transmissions outside of their assigned spectra. Kiryung Electronics, which makes the Xact Visor, Sirius One, and Sportster Replay radios, is reportedly back in that business with a new grant of authority from the FCC. Meanwhile, about eight of XM's radios, including the Roady XT and the MyFi, are still a mess, failing another pass at FCC approval. These guys have to get their radios sorted out as we head into the Q4 consumption season. They've succeeded in getting their radios down to really low price points, which helps draw in impulse buys and subscriptions, but they have to be on the shelves for that to happen.
The best car tech is still a car that runs, and nothing ensures that better than a nice fat factory warranty. So I was glad to see Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury cars get upgrades to their powertrain warranties a few days ago--now up to five years or 60,000 miles, and an even longer six years or 70,000 miles for Lincoln. The old three years or 36,000 mile warranties on Ford and Mercury were a joke. The long-lasting fun starts with the 2007 models.