Jan 27, 2002 (07:01 PM EST)
Planes, Trains, And Automobiles
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
Judging by manufacturer announcements, car and airline executives have suddenly discovered the Internet. They want to get you online, no matter where you are or what you're doing. Everybody, from Boeing to Volvo, is promising access to E-mail and the Internet in planes and automobiles, and it looks likely to be a train wreck.
The most recent announcements have an air of "1999 all over again" about them: They look set to repeat the expensive mistakes by companies (such as OmniSky) that tried to persuade consumers to pay for mobile information access. Fortunately for everybody else in the mobile economy, this is a great opportunity to watch and learn from the highly funded, technology-led initiatives of the likes of Ford, Boeing, and General Motors.
Despite disappointing results to date, business-to-consumer mobile technologies can be successful, as long as they're designed for the user's needs, desires, and constraints, rather than the generic mobilization of the Internet. There has been growing interest, spearheaded by OnStar, in using telematics in vehicles. The services range from helpful (in-car navigation) to useful (remotely unlocking car doors if you locked yourself out) to potentially lifesaving: if the airbag deploys in a monitored car, somebody will call you on the built-in telephone and, if necessary, alert emergency services.
However, in the last few months, car manufacturers seem to have lost sight of what makes current telematics systems appealing. Instead, they're loudly announcing plans to add services such as E-mail, Internet browsing, and even E-commerce transactions. Not to be left out, technology companies such as Sun Microsystems and Oracle (in its Wingcast partnership with Ford) also revealed intentions to be players in this market.
Meanwhile, Boeing is pressing ahead with its plans for in-flight Internet access, although all but one of its airline partners in this project (Lufthansa) have dropped out. Most recently, Accenture and Microsoft revealed a partnership to bring .Net to the car dashboard, stating that "the future of auto computing is one where your home and work PCs are synched up with your car PC. You will be able to surf the Net, pull stock quotes, and get E-mail and instant messages via voice recognition."
This isn't just an exercise in criticism, though. These proposals throw into relief the kinds of mobile services that are likely to succeed. Here's the key criteria:
Designing For The Users. Remember Them?
The first step in doing so is to identify the different types of users and their roles. When you think about drivers' primary responsibilities, and study drivers to see how they work, it's not hard to realize the value of the hazard warning system that's often integrated in radar detectors. Now imagine that this system were tied into the in-car navigation system, which automatically revised your route when alerted to an accident ahead. Go one step further and imagine that the system checks your calendar, sees that you're going to be late for your flight as a result of the delay, and automatically rebooks you on the next flight while sending an instant message to the person who was supposed to meet you at the other end. None of this is beyond the realm of current technology.
As usual, poor design is more often caused by a lack of imagination than a lack of technology. We'll probably see a year or two of disappointingly generic "in-car information systems" whose value will mostly be to serve as design lessons for the rest of us, as well as knocking technology bugs out of complex, integrated wireless systems. After that, I firmly expect the car manufacturers to get back to what they--in normal times--excel at: identifying, understanding, and meeting the needs of the car user.