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GM joins handheld beaming craze

Consumers can load up on free brochures at the 2001 North American International Auto Show, but General Motors is offering a different mode.

    DETROIT--Save a tree: Buy a handheld computer?

    The 2001 North American International Auto Show is a pack rat's paradise, where consumers can load up on free brochures, posters and fact sheets for virtually any vehicle sold in North America. The show will open to the public Saturday and run through Jan. 21.

    But for those who don't enjoy lugging armfuls of glossy prints or hauling tote bags laden with manufacturers' manuals--or for tree huggers loath to consume extra pulp--General Motors is experimenting with a solution.

    At its Cadillac luxury display, the automaker features a Palm handheld computer that beams informational leaflets into consumers' compatible devices. Show-goers receive the material--16K of data ranging from specifications on the 2001 Cadillac DeVille to the newest onboard navigation systems--in an application for handhelds.

    GM had a similar setup for the 5,000 journalists who attended the show's four-day media preview earlier this week. GM prepared digital versions of its full public relations contact list, executive biographies, new products, press events, and a map of the sprawling show floor.

    Roughly 200 reporters, photographers and editors had the information beamed into their Palms and Handspring Visors during the media preview. People who used handhelds by Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and others couldn't receive the information.

    Although only 4 percent of the attending journalists, at best, received GM's digital contact kit, GM representatives were thrilled with the response. The company's public relations team conceived of the idea only a few weeks ago and relied on an outside contractor to rush together the data and create its understated, wood-mounted display.

    "We didn't really know how many people would use it, frankly," said Len Marsico, a GM spokesman who has an aged Palm and hopes to upgrade for his next birthday. "We said, 'Let's not go overboard, but let's see the acceptance level'...Yeah, we got confirmation all right that this is something people want. We will definitely do it again."

    GM's handheld experiment at the Cadillac stand--one of the first of its kind at a general-interest consumer show--mirrors a larger movement toward beamed information among consumer products manufacturers. Beaming data is far less costly than printing and distributing glossy brochures, and it's easier for consumers to carry.

    Beaming is simply the use of infrared beams to send information between two compatible devices. Standing a few feet apart, people with Palms or Handspring Visors can trade memos and software with a few taps of their handheld wands.

    Swapping business cards is one of the most common uses of beaming. The digital cards are automatically alphabetized in a handheld's address book, including the beamer's title, email address and other contact information.

    The technology sector pioneered alternative uses for beaming. Sun Microsystems sold 10,000 Palm V models at its JavaOne conference in June 1999 in an effort to encourage Java programmers to start writing Java programs for Palms. The show was littered with docking stations. Hard-core tech conferences such as the Consumer Electronics Show, Comdex and PalmSource have also featured docking stations and beaming.

    But broader corporate America is now discovering beaming, which has gone from geeky to glamorous as sales of handhelds mushroom. Banana Republic beams maps and directories of the flagship store in New York, compliments of a handheld-toting concierge at the front desk.

    In addition to receiving information, consumers may eventually be able to purchase items directly through their handhelds from the show floor or store. At the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, Palm CEO Carl Yankowski outlined plans for handhelds to become "eWallets," from which consumers can receive coupons, purchase goods, and automatically track finances.

    GM does not anticipate that customers will be able to research, finance and purchase vehicles at auto shows anytime soon. But GM officials are jazzed about the Palm display because, they say, it gives the automaker more of a high-tech aura. Like all automakers, GM is engaged in a companywide campaign to digitize business processes and find new revenue streams in the high-margin world of information technology.

    "At the end of the first press conference, we wanted an executive to say to the crowd, 'Now everyone hold up your Palm, and we'll beam you the press kit!'" Marsico enthused. "But we didn't get that far quite fast enough. We know some people still want that hard copy, but we figured this would be a good start."