The mobile workstation -

The mobile workstation

There's a bit of a debate right now over whether to allow cell phone calls on airplanes. Turns out the FAA was being overly cautious before; cellular phones don't actually interfere with navigational equipment after all. No problem; better safe than sorry. So now we have the option of allowing cell phone usage on flights.

The question now becomes, do we really want to? While it might be technologically sound, is it socially acceptable? Do we want to listen to overly loud one-sided conversations from the people seated next to us (and behind us and ahead of us)? Informal polls show that most people oppose the idea. They like the relative isolation of a long plane flight. It's about the only time you've got a valid excuse for not checking messages or joining conference calls.

We're creeping toward a somewhat similar situation in our cars. Automotive electronics have brought all sorts of improvements in safety, reliability, efficiency, performance—you name it. New cars are vastly better than they were just a decade or so ago, mostly due to improved electronics. But we're reaching the point where the electronics have surpassed what's necessary and moving into what's interesting. We've picked the low-hanging fruit. Now we're reaching for the less obvious and less critical features.

In-car entertainment, back-seat video screens, satellite radio, and other “frivolous” features are very popular, and quite profitable. GPS-based navigation systems are also flying out of showrooms, so to speak, and will likely become standard equipment before long. Bluetooth connections to cell phones aren't unusual and add an interesting new twist to “hands-free” communication; you don't even have to remove the phone from your purse. Somewhere along the line we'll overstep the bounds of what mainstream auto buyers want, and take a small step back. It's impossible to predict where that point lies or when it will arrive, but it's inevitable. Every industry tests its boundaries this way, whether it's consumer electronics, banking, retailing, or music. I suspect the tipping point will come fairly soon, and the issue will be reliability.

We're accustomed to mechanical breakdowns in our cars (well, some of us are) but not electronic failures. There's something inherently creepy about software failures in an automobile. Perhaps it's cultural or simply at odds with our accumulated experience, but we're not comfortable with the idea that our onboard computers might crash, as it were. A news story circulated recently about a certain make of car contracting viruses through the Bluetooth interface. Like having alligators in the sewers, it doesn't matter whether the story is true or not. It shows how people are uneasy with the very idea.

Most people equate “software” with “personal computer,” and that is not a happy analogy. We'd all hope that our cars would be far more reliable than our PCs. Automotive software needs to be utterly reliable and predictable, regardless of where it's used. Most people won't make a distinction between the failure of their in-dash CD player and the failure of their antilock brakes. If the CD software hiccups, the entire car is suspect. The consumer electronics firms understand this; they know that DVD players and VCRs need to be utterly reliable, even if they're hardly safety-critical devices. Computer makers, on the other hand, tolerate a certain amount of iffiness. Let's be sure the former philosophy prevails.

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