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Palm and partners to launch wireless, voice-activated service for cars

Industry Standard

(IDG) -- A company that wants to enable people to use their voices to interact with data services in their cars has attracted some heavy-hitting investors. Handheld company Palm, auto-electronics supplier Delphi Automotive and venerable venture-capital firm Mayfield Fund announced Wednesday that they were making minority investments in MobileAria.

The company's twist on the growing market for telematics, or car voice and data services, is that it plans to integrate portable devices, such as Palm digital assistants and mobile phones.

Business commuters sitting in traffic would no longer be able to listen to goofy morning talk shows without guilt. There would be no excuse not to set up appointments or retrieve e-mail. Delphi Automotive plans to provide a docking station for cars by the end of the year that would enable people to interact with a cell phone and Palm through voice recognition - they would just say a phone number out loud instead of dialing it, for example.

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However, the Delphi docking station, Ericsson phone and Palm PDA package could get in the way of your Big Gulp. It also multiplies the number of wireless connections to the car - conceivably, you could end up with three separate services.

"It doesn't appear to be particularly well-integrated," says Rob Enderle, VP of desktop and mobile technology at Giga Information Group (GIGX). "It's not elegant. Ideally, you'd have one single device instead of two devices bundled together."

Nonetheless, based on this initial hardware, MobileAria plans to launch a wireless service in the second quarter that would help people access e-mail and get directions, news and other information on the go.

Unlike mobile services that simply read directions aloud, MobileAria's integration with the Palm would allow customers to store those directions. Palm sees its investment as a step toward "pervasive connectivity," says Barry Cottle, COO of Palm's content and access division. The Palm has an existing Palm.Net wireless service, and the companies would have to work out the difference between what they provide and what MobileAria provides.

A report from the Strategis Group predicts revenue from telematics will grow to $1.4 billion by 2004. Car manufacturers are interested in these services because they provide a way to stay in touch with customers after they drive the car off the lot.

MobileAria says its service could complement existing services such as General Motors' OnStar, which is focused on safety monitoring features - for example, when a car automatically calls 911 if the airbag inflates.

Delphi, which has built a $30 billion business supplying automotive-electronics components, is working with auto manufacturers to include its docking station in new cars. The product also will be available in retail channels.

Pricing for the Delphi hardware has not been announced, nor has a price been put on the MobileAria service, which would involve a subscription fee. The companies would not disclose the amount of their individual investments or how much money has been raised, but Palm and Delphi have each assigned staff members from their companies to work on the project. MobileAria, based in San Jose, Calif., is searching for a CEO.




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Mayfield Fund

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