Carmakers Driving Innovation

The next step: having cars interact directly with networks.

Should we really care about all the features that will be included in Microsofts "Longhorn" operating system when it arrives in 2006 or 2007? A little. How about the legal wrangles surrounding the birth and purchasing of the Linux operating system? A little, if you can stay awake during the quarrels. How about the idea of skipping the microprocessor races for a while to think instead about new applications and systems enabled by huge increases in storage and data communications capacities? Now thats interesting.

During a recent keynote presentation that I attended at CeBIT in New York, General Motors Chief Technology Officer Tony Scott discussed the continuing increase in the number of electronic components in automobiles. As someone whose car has a Check Engine light that is permanently on, I find it hard to see a great benefit in having even more warning lights go on for no reason that I—or, more important, a crew of mechanics—can identify. However, that was exactly the point Scott made in talking about GMs OnStar network, which now has 2.5 million subscribers.

The next step in networks such as OnStar isnt to have users rely on the system to do what could easily be done with a cell phone—such as calling for directions—but to have the car interact directly with the network. The combination of cheap sensors, the Global Positioning System and robust two-way networks will enable automobiles to perform system checks, incorporate security products and download software patches to keep running as they should, even if drivers do not pay attention to warning indicators.

With gasoline prices on the rise and the driving world characterized more by idling in stop-and-go traffic than by moving along the open road, carmakers ability to have direct communication with customers and their automobiles will have a more profound effect on car sales and owner satisfaction than additional horsepower or styling changes. Neither the processor nor the operating system enables communications; rather, the proliferation of inexpensive sensors communicating over a robust network makes it possible.

Id also argue that storage is a far more interesting topic than the operating system. It is noteworthy that as Google prepares to launch its Gmail free e-mail network, it is using storage as a key differentiator. Vendors are capitalizing on big increases in storage capacities at the drive level, as well as on the greater ease of building storage networks and incorporating intelligence into those networks, to offer some of the more innovative products of the year. Apples iTunes is not much more than an intelligently developed and designed storage area network.

Storage also might be the area where data security finally catches up with the bad guys. Microsoft and IBM have recently been talking more about encryption on the fly, which promises the security of encrypted data without the system performance penalties previously associated with the encryption process. Trying to plug all the holes in your data network is an endless task, but knowing that if you are hacked all the hacker will get is encrypted data makes the task seem less futile.

At a more personal level, USB memory devices could ensure laptop and desktop security. Those ubiquitous USBs are appearing with 1G bit of storage, a processor in the device and biometric security. Security requirements are capably fulfilled with one of those USB drives. I dont think it will be too long before the USB drive becomes the product you carry with you and plug into kiosks, laptops and desktops for greater portability and security of data than could ever be achieved by toting around a laptop or PDA.

Those USB drives have three big benefits. First, the data is portable. Second, the data can be password-protected, encrypted and kept physically apart from the computer—a huge plus in protecting against hacking and stolen laptops. And third, if you add some simple biometric security to the device, you can move security to a confidence level that laptop and desktop vendors will not achieve in the near term.

For years, the operating system battles have garnered much interest. These days, those operating systems are taking a back seat to network and storage capabilities.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at


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