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Computing on a Roll
by Mark Sedenquist

In my response to Ed Bramlett's query , I mentioned the relative lack of vehicles designed for working Dashboarders. For the most part, nothing has changed over the last ten days, but there are some glimmers of hope on the horizon. At the suggestion of professional Dashboarder and long-haul trucker Mike Booth, I attended the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas this week. In particular, I was looking for concept cars that include mobile office elements. Some of the electronic manufacturers' products that I have written about in the past are beginning to appear in these early concept vehicles.

Michael Johnson from the GMC Savana group was displaying a van developed to serve the plumbing and general contractor trade. While the custom-built interior racks and remote-opening side panels were impressive, it was the cockpit amenities that caught my eye. In the photo at left, you can probably see the yellow cellular handset in the Cellport universal portal and the Palm VII PDA next to it. This PDA has a program created by Gearworks called "E-Trace" that allows a mobile contractor to create work orders that can interface with inventory management programs in the home office. But the best part was the swivel desk that can be seen below the PDA cradle. The photo is not very clear, but the desk easily holds a laptop and printer. It swiveled into a position that I found useful when I sat in the driver's seat. The PDA is linked to the printer so that the "contractor" could print one of the virtual work orders to give to the customer.

Elsewhere on the floor I looked at a Ford Winstar that included a complete computer desk set up created by designers at Holland Communications. Because this was a genuine work-in-progress, I was unable to climb inside and give it a test run. VP of Sales Jeff Donker assured me that it would be returning for either Comdex or the Consumer Electronic Show, where I will be back to punch the keys, kick the tires, and let you know if it will work for Dashboarders.

Most of the concept vehicles displayed some version of the in-vehicle video systems that look like they'll be the rage in 2001. One example of these is used by the Q-PC onboard computer. There also were a variety of communication mounting products on display in the vehicles. The folks at PanaVise in Reno, provided me with a ClipCaddy. This a very clever mounting plate that I used to mount my Nokia 6162 on the dash very near the steering wheel. Now I can see the phone's display without lowering my eyes from the normal viewing area.

I also saw a new "hands free" telephone cradle by TeleVideo that purports to be able to answer incoming calls automatically and disconnect when the party hangs up. This means there's no need to hit those pesky little buttons. I hope to obtain one of these devices, and I'll report on its effectiveness in a future column. Finally, I liked the laptop holding device seen in the rear of the Ford Sunstar van. That should keep the backseat drivers busy playing computer games for a spell…

In the cutting-edge department, I had a couple of "off-the-record" conversations about in-vehicle computing gear that may see public launch in January. There are a multitude of problems that must be overcome in order to supply true two-way satellite communications to dashboarders. One of those is the large size dish required for "normal" dish-type antennas. There is a possibility that a phased-array antenna system could overcome the size issue, and one is being tested for in-vehicle use. Of course, the ISP's and telecommunication providers have yet to solve the billing issues; the likelihood that we will see the first roll-out of two-way service in 2000 looks very bleak. On a happier note, I found a little device that everyone should consider buying. The "ROBI" was created by Robert Ireland from the communications think tank at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. It is a little sleeve that can be placed over the handset antenna, and it blocks some of the potentially harmful radiation that radiates into our heads when we use our cellular phones.

The next sixty days represent a potentially exciting period for Dashboarders - three major electronic shows will be making their way to Las Vegas chock full of dazzling arrays of the latest technology. I will be wandering those endless convention halls looking for the products and services that will begin to enable productive work solutions for on-the-road professionals. I am looking forward to hearing from you this week.

Mark Sedenquist
Las Vegas, Nevada
November 6, 2000