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Baby, you can network my car

Car stereo makers are getting antsy to join the MP3 revolution.

SAN FRANCISCO--Fasten your seatbelts--the next stop for the MP3 revolution is your car.

That was the consensus of a group of mobile electronics executives at the Consumer Electronics Association's Industry Forum, with panelists agreeing that makers of car stereos and other automotive gadgets are running out of time to get on board with the switch to digital media.

"If we are going to connect with the consumer today, we have to be focused on Generation Y," said Stephen Witt, vice president of marketing for Alpine Electronics. "This is a wireless generation; they live connected at all times. We are dealing with a download culture today, and that's changing the far as what is the value proposition of a mobile product."

One of the biggest problems remains getting media from devices that have already joined the digital realm--portable MP3 players, PCs, etc.--into your car. Once upon a time, that was as simple as remembering to throw a cassette tape into your briefcase, but now the car stereo crowd has to confront the same miasma of competing standards that's stalling the rest of entertainment world.

Microsoft's answer includes ubiquitous Wi-Fi connections, so your car automatically logs into your home network when you leave it in the garage overnight and downloads any new content you might be interested in, said Jai Jaisimha, lead program manager for Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Group.

"The challenge is, how do we bring the car into the home network as a first-class citizen?" Jaisimha said.

Microsoft's Media Transfer Protocol, the standard behind the software giant's "Plays For Sure" campaign to simplify connections between media devices, is also a vital component in ensuring mobile devices, PCs and car systems can talk to each other, Jaisimha said.

"One of the things that's been frustrating to consumers is that when you have a device, how do you know what goes with what?" he said. "We want to see that same experience people have with mobile players happen in the car, and not just BMWs," he said, referring to Apple Computer's iPod deal with the luxury automaker.

But achieving interoperability means getting past a "stay out of my car" attitude in the automotive industry, said Keith Lehmann, vice president of car stereo maker Kenwood Americas. Nearly a quarter of the leading automobile models this year have physical or software barriers that prevent installation of any electronic devices that don't come from the automaker, he said.

That puts the onus on installers, said Ron Freeman, COO of car stereo accessories specialist AAMP of America. The guys who hook up your speakers increasingly are being required to turn themselves into experts in reverse engineering, he said, so they can get Gadget A to work in Car B. "This is a tough stuff," he said. "Installers are not familiar with issues like firmware."

Once you get your new gadget to work in the car, the next challenge is figuring out how to operate it while keeping at least one eye on the road. Electronics makers increasingly have to rethink display and control options, said Michael Gardner, director of Motorola's Intelligent Systems division, highlighting future advances such as displays that would project a see-through image on the car's windshield and increasingly sophisticated voice-control options.

"How do people juggle the things they want to do in a car but do it in a responsible way?" Gardner asked. "Our job is to make the dashboard of the future visually and cognitively simple."