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Internet access in Ford trucks. Cars far behind?

Ford teams up with Opera to put a browser in its truck and van computers, but what about passenger cars?

Edited to include reference to Brian Cooley's 2008 video on BMW's in-car Internet

As CNET's Cartech blog reported last week, Ford Motor and Opera Software have announced a collaboration to add Web browsing to the Internet-enabled in-dash computers that Ford is installing in some of its trucks and work vans.

Ford says it's the first vehicle manufacturer in North America to offer an installed Internet device, though there are several in-dash aftermarket devices and, of course, it's long been possible to use an Internet-connected laptop in a vehicle. A year ago CNET's Brian Cooley filed a video report about BMW's in-car Internet access

The built-in Ford Work Solutions computer, which is being marketed to contractors, farmers, construction workers and business owners, is equipped with Microsoft Auto, a version of the Windows CE operating system.

In addition to accessing the Web through the Opera browser, the computer can run LogMeIn to enable remote access to office and home PCs. The computer also includes Garmin GPS navigation and is integrated with the vehicle cell phone. Internet access, through Sprint's 3G network is available for $25 a month for a 25-megabyte plan or $50 for up to 5 gigabytes of data, which should be more than enough for the vast majority of users.

The computer costs $1,125. It has a 6.5-inch screen and comes with a wireless Bluetooth keyboard. Ford sells an optional wireless Hewlett-Packard printer. The device also has an AM/FM radio and a CD player.

You can use the radio, CD, navigation system, and phone while driving, but for safety reasons, the computer and Internet access work only while the vehicle is parked. Also, the system does not allow you to stream Internet audio or video, even while stationary.

It makes a lot of sense for Ford to offer this to its business customers, many of whom spend the better part of their day in and around their vehicles. Before the economy put a damper on construction, it wasn't uncommon to see contractors and construction foremen pull out a laptop to get or send information vital to the job.

And having a Web browser makes sense, given the vast amount of resources it makes available. The Ford device also lets users send and receive e-mail and text messages. A message from the office with an address of a job, for example, can be pasted into the GPS application, making navigation a bit easier.

Internet equipped car computers inevitable
As someone who doesn't own a truck and probably never will, I'm not a potential customer for this system. But I'm sure Ford and other U.S. automakers have considered a consumer version for passenger cars.

If they do offer one--and I'm sure it's inevitable--I hope they include a media player with the ability to stream audio while the car is in motion. I support not allowing the driver to surf the Web or watch video while driving, but I see no harm in enabling it for passengers.

Drivers can now listen to Internet radio on an iPhone plugged into a car audio system using iPhone apps such as Pandora, Tuner, and AOL Radio. Shortly after the iPhone 3G came out, I drove around Silicon Valley listening live to East Coast stations and overseas radio and streaming music via Pandora.

While it worked, there are some problems with the iPhone solution. Not only are the phone and service expensive, the device is not designed to be used safely in the car. It's OK to listen but not safe to tune-in a station while driving, even though I'm sure people do it. It would be equally dangerous to use a Web browser to tune into Internet radio while driving.

Pandora for the road?
But it would be nice if future versions of products like this let you use the browser to configure your preferred stations while stationary or from home or work and put up a push-button interface on the screen that lets you tune into your favorite online stations as your car radio now let you access AM, FM, and satellite stations.

I think Internet radio could strike a deathblow to satellite radio and present challenges to terrestrial radio stations and networks, including those of CBS (which owns CNET). Of course, broadcasters are already streaming their programming online (most CBS stations are now available on the iPhone through AOL Radio). But in an online world, they will have to compete with anyone who invests as little as a few hundred dollars in a PC, some audio gear, and a Web site. Today, people get live audio in their cars by listening to terrestrial stations that have FCC licenses and expensive transmitters, or to satellite radio with really expensive satellites floating around in space. Competition will be good for consumers as it pressures stations and networks to be more competitive.

Aside from building Internet media players in the dash, the auto industry needs to persuade cellular carriers to lower the cost of data plans. Sprint's $50 plan, which is $10 less than the plan offered for laptops, is a good start. But I'd like to see prices come down further--perhaps to $19.95 a month.