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Palm lends a hand in roadside emergencies

A wireless version of an auto club service will provide free tow truck referrals and taxi requests to stranded drivers using the wireless Palm VII.

    A new service is aiming to let stranded drivers use their Palms, rather than their thumbs, to flag down help.

    A wireless version of an auto club, 1-800-TOW-TRUCK's Traveler SOS service provides free tow truck referrals and taxi requests to stranded drivers using the Palm VII wireless device, the company announced with Palm today. In addition, drivers can use the service to find nearby food and lodging while they're waiting for a spare tire.

    Although it crosses some technical hurdles and may be a taste of things to come, it is still unclear whether services like Traveler SOS offer an advantage over using a cell phone to call a friend or roadside assistance club.

    In addition to tow trucks and taxis, Traveler SOS offers a Palm-based service that delivers emergency messages to friends and family members. The referrals are free, and people will pay only the going rate for the tow truck or taxi service, according to Joseph Siegel, vice president of business development. He added that the company offers a premium plan for $59 a year that includes all of the above features.

    "This is the only roadside assistant plan to work with wireless devices," said Siegel, who says the service is perfect for drivers who forget or don't have a cell phone. "It's for when you're out of luck and there's nothing that you can do."

    Traveler SOS, which also can be accessed via a cell phone, is one of the first Palm-based services to take advantage of the location-detection technology inherent in cellular devices. Personalized wireless data, in the form of news alerts, weather bulletins, stock prices and sports scores, is already available from a variety of sources for two-way pagers and Web-enabled cell phones. But there has yet to be the same explosion of home-delivery services as seen in the traditional e-commerce sector.

    Existing Palm.net applications provide local content, such as weather and flight information, and competing products for Palm licensee Handspring offer global positioning and mapping information. But Traveler SOS is one of the first wireless companies to bring goods or services directly to Palm users wherever they are.

    Services like Kozmo.com, which provides home delivery of videos and snacks, or Web grocery companies like Webvan have yet to migrate to wireless devices, although some analysts predict that the wave is coming. E-commerce companies, including Amazon.com, have developed special versions of their services for the Palm VII. More local e-commerce applications are expected to follow.

    These types of location-based services are expected to become more widespread in the next few years, in part because of a government mandate that requires all cellular carriers to be able to locate their subscribers for just the type of emergency services Traveler SOS is offering. By October 2001, this "e-911" rule will force carriers to locate 85 percent of their customers to within 125 meters.

    Traveler SOS is available only for the Palm family of products but will eventually be available for Windows CE-based products and other wireless devices, Siegel said.

    "Traveler SOS offers Palm handheld customers a versatile and easy-to-use program for emergencies on the road," Byron Connell, vice president of Palm's consumer marketing group, said in a statement today. "Applications like this are a great example of how Palm handhelds and Web clipping technology can be used to create powerful solutions for our customers."