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A Telematics Win for Microsoft

It's been a busy week in the telematics (in-car communications) field, capped by a Microsoft-Toyota deal in which the car maker agreed to employ Windows CE for Automotive as the heart of its new in-car "G-Book" information network.

Toyota says its G-Book offering, scheduled to debut in October, "will connect people, cars and society."

And where Toyota goes, Honda is never far behind, as the company said it would offer a new voice-operated car navigation system on its Accord sedan starting this fall.

Honda, Japan's No. 2 automaker, said its navigation system, called InterNavi Premium Club, offers regularly updated traffic reports, news, maintenance and other information as well as the ability to send e-mail. It will be available as an option and updates of the cell-phone-based system's DVD map software will be free for three years.

Toyota's G-Book interactive service will replace its current "Monet" service and will offer everything from downloading music and playing games to e-mail and e-commerce, in addition to basic navigation help and access to emergency roadside service. At least for now, G-Book and InterNavi are only being offered in Japan.

But the telematics wave is clearly rolling down the highway -- BMW launched an in-car service based on Windows CE last March.

Microsoft teamed with Accenture last January to deliver advanced automotive telematics solutions, including wireless Internet connections, to the industry.

Windows CE for Automotive is a real-time embedded operating system that enables new categories of in-car computers designed to provide hands-free communication, access to personalized information on the Internet and other convenience and entertainment applications.

"We are very proud of our work with Toyota to deliver an advanced information network system that connects people any time, anywhere and on any device," said Dick Brass, vice president of technology development overseeing the automotive efforts at Microsoft.

Toyota hasn't disclosed the price of its new services, but the company said that it hopes around 30 to 40 percent of its passenger car owners will eventually become subscribers to G-Book.

The G-Book uses a data communication module, allowing Toyota to charge a flat fee while Honda's system requires the use of a cell phone, with customers paying for transmission time.

The leader in the field is GM's OnStar, a telematics service available in 2003 Acura, Isuzu, Volkswagen, Lexus, Audi, Subaru and GM models, among others. OnStar includes a navigation system that lets you call an OnStar center if you're lost, and offers roadside assistance and safety features.

However, OnStar is $695 option on GM models, plus a monthly charge. UConnect, a $300 DaimlerChrysler option, synchronizes your handheld and hands-free in-car cell phone.

Microsoft says its Windows CE for Automotive technology is featured in the computing and communications systems of 12 car models from five auto manufacturers worldwide.

UBS Warburg Ltd.'s Telematics Research has predicted that by 2006, nearly 33 percent of all automobiles sold will include a telematics system.

And In-Stat/MDR says that all cars will eventually be produced with some degree of embedded telematics systems and predicts that the number of subscribers to Internet-based telematics services worldwide will rise from approximately 27,000 in 2001 to just over 5 million in 2006.

But there will be some fallout along the way: Wingcast, a joint venture between Ford and QUALCOMM , has had its wings clipped before even really getting off the ground.

The two companies dissolved their partnership last June. They had planned to provide telematics in some model year 2003 vehicles and compete with General Motors' OnStar service as the premiere Internet-in-your-car system.