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Windows CE migrates to the automobile.

EVERY TIME I SEE a newborn child, I experience a kind of double vision. Looked at one way, babies are pathetic, useless inconveniences. Looked at another, they're the future embodied. I got much the same split feeling last week riding around in Perry Lee's 1999 midnight blue Chevy Subruban, getting a demonstration of Clarion Audio's AutoPC.

If you're a reader of Forbes or Inc. or Wired, you may already have seen an ad for the product, as brilliant a piece of bait as ever was printed in four colors. In it we see a dashboard's-eye view of a fashionably scruffy youth at the wheel of his road tank, accompanied by the following psalm (which should really be read aloud in a throaty contralto, for maximum effect):

There's very little I wouldn't do for you.

Let me dial your office.

Cue up your favorite CD.

Check for traffic up ahead.

I can read you directions to wherever you want to go.

Just talk to me.

Get the picture? A computer in your car that you talk to and that talks back. That plays you music and places phone calls for you. That monitors traffic reports and serves as navigator. That fetches and displays your e-mail. That does your bidding. Jeff Payne's ad campaign, created at the Irvine, California, agency DGWB, reaches out to the car guy inside all of us (yes, you too, ladies) and firmly whacks the "buy" button.

In real life, of course, things are not so exciting. The voice of the Clarion AutoPC is "female," but more synthesized than sexy. You can tell it what to do, but only by remembering strings of idiot-proof commands in just the right sequence. It will play any CD track you tell it to, but just try getting a CD into it without going off the road. And it does give you directions to where you're going, but only if you know how to tell it where that is and if you replace Aerosmith's Greatest Hits with a street-map CD running in tandem with a built-in GPS ($400 extra, on top of the $1,200 basic hardware).

In its current iteration, in short, the Clarion AutoPC is only for the most passionate and tweak-tolerant of early adopters. But like the baby mentioned earlier, it is so obviously radiant with potential that it won't be long before every high-end automobile will be fitted out with something similar. Cadillac is ready to offer such an option in its 2000 model year, and many more manufacturers are in line, while dozens of software designers are already building applications for it.

The operating system, despite the apparently neutral AutoPC rubric, is none other than Microsoft's Windows CE. Often derided as mere a stripped-down Windows Lite, CE is actually a brand-new operating system, its primary design thrust not compactness but versatility; it's a platform for programming inter-device communication and operation.

IF MICROSOFT HOPES to make CE the leading such standard, automobiles are a perfect beachhead. New cars are already crawling with computer chips; the AutoPC is a logical extension—a programmable command center for your car, offering no-hands (and no-eyes) control over everything from window wipers to door locks to air-conditioning to security.

The problem for AutoPC's CE platform is not lack of software but "usability": In theory, you can do just about anything you need to with Clarion's system through its built-in set of voice commands. In practice, it's a lot easier to use your fingers and eyes to find the function you're after, and that sort of defeats the purpose since it keeps taking your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road. As for functions programmed in by the driver—entering phone numbers and contact info, for example, or voice-operated presets for favorite radio stations—well, it makes configuring your TV's remote control seem easy by comparison.

But none of that matters, really. Technophobe you may be, but you will not escape the spread of this device any more than you could have escaped the spread of Windows in the desktop PC world. (It may not happen this year, but wait until next year.) Why? The answer is very likely sitting in the baby seat behind you right now. The product manager for the Microsoft group responsible for AutoPC, Roger Gulrajani, introduced his children (ages 5 and 2 and a half) to the gadget not long ago. "They had a lot of fun hollering, 'AutoPC!' at it to get it to talk back," he recalls. "But what was interesting was when we went back into the house. They were walking up to appliances and saying, 'TV!' and 'Refrigerator!' and fully expecting to get an answer back."

Now that's early adoption.

Related Links:

AutoPC Web site

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