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Surfing from behind the wheel

IBM and Motorola plan to announce a partnership to develop wireless Net technology for cars so people can send email or surf the Web while they drive.

The car PC has been a staple of trade shows and technology conferences for years, but now it appears that these devices may start making their way in larger numbers to consumers.

IBM and Motorola tomorrow will announce a partnership under which the two companies will begin to develop wireless Internet technology for cars so people can send email, check on stocks or engage in impulse buying while they drive. The first IBM-Motorola devices could appear in cars by 2002, but others are working on similar projects.

For Motorola, which already makes in-car wireless and computing devices for Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and other carmakers, the move broadens its existing portfolio of "telematics" products.

IBM, meanwhile, is expanding on a recent binge of wireless partnerships, such as with Sprint and VodaFone, that take it into uncharted territory.

Telematics are embedded, in-vehicle electronic systems used for improving safety. Telematic devices can provide, among other applications, navigation information, linkups to service companies for roadside assistance, protection against theft, and wireless Internet connections for accessing email.

Motorola has provided carmakers with telematic devices, such as global positioning systems (GPS), since 1996. Interactive Internet devices, however, constitute a new area for the communications giant. The company last week at the Consumer Electronics Show unveiled a prototype of iRadio, a multimedia, multi-access device for connecting wirelessly to the Web, satellites and cellular networks.

Motorola touts iRadio as a next-generation entertainment system for obtaining real-time traffic reports, downloading and listening to digital music and audio books, and accessing voice mail and email.

Motorola announced last week that it was working with Command Audio to integrate "audio-on-demand" technology into the iRadio system. Command Audio's technology lets users who subscribe to its service preselect material they want to listen to and transmits it to cars via FM radio waves.

Because the content is specially formatted, the Command Audio receiver can actually scan forward and backward through broadcasts to let users find news stories they want, for instance. Executives with Redwood City-based Command Audio said Motorola is now one of the largest shareholders in the privately held firm.

"There is also an e-commerce angle that will let people buy things from their car," said Mike Bordelon, vice president of Motorola's telematics computing group. "But to offer that and other features across that space we need one end-to-end solution, and that's where IBM comes in."

IBM will provide many of the back-end computing systems and services that will enable iRadio and other concept devices to work.

"There are a lot of things that happen in the device that are very much tied to the server," said Jon Prial, director of marketing for IBM's pervasive computing division. "We focus on all that from synchronization, database, messaging and voice technology--all technologies from IBM for enabling the devices."

Like Motorola and IBM, Sun, Hewlett-Packard and other "big iron" server makers plan similar initiatives using their back-end computing services for enabling a wide-range of wireless devices, including those built into cars.

Other companies are also betting in-car wireless Web devices will appeal to consumers. GM and Sony last week said they would develop e-vehicles with Internet access.

Microsoft has partnered with Clarion, Daewoo, Intel and others on the AutoPC, an in-dashboard navigation system using Windows Powered, formerly known as Windows CE.

Technology Business Research analyst Joe Ferlazzo foresees carmakers taking a more aggressive role providing these technologies rather than waiting for Motorola, IBM and others to deliver them. He pointed to alliances announced Monday between GM and AOL, and Ford and Yahoo.

As part of the GM deal, AOL will provide content accessible through the carmaker's OnStar communications system. OnStar, which was designed for GM by Motorola and Delco Electronics, uses wireless and GPS capabilities for navigation, cellular phone access and roadside assistance.

"I don't think you will see devices coming directly out of Detroit so much as their partnering with other companies," Ferlazzo said. "GM and others are moving on their own as part of a trend to Internet-enable all the areas of our lives which are not yet Internet-enabled."

IBM and Motorola will co-market the wireless Web devices, the first of which will go to carmakers late this year and likely appear in 2002 models. DaimlerChrysler, GM and Volkswagen are some of the carmakers considering the devices.

At this point, neither company plans to sell the products directly to customers but instead through carmakers.