If there isn’t yet a “killer application” for the wireless Internet, there is definitely a “killer statistic.” And here it is: In the U.S., more than 60% of wireless phone use is done inside a car. That would only seem logical, considering that we Americans spend much more time in our cars than Europeans do (an average of 1.5 additional hours per day). The space where wireless merges with the automobile is called “Telematics” (see box at right). And one of the prime movers in that field is a Seattle startup aptly named InfoMove. We spoke with company COO Tom Ross about how he’s helping to turn the car into what Scott McNealy (the head of Sun Microsystems) recently referred to as “a browser with wheels.”—LS
Seattle24x7: Tom, InfoMove seems to be touching all parts of the automotive-user-interface. What are some of the applications that you’re developing?
Ross: Our focus is on delivering services that are relevant to people while they’re driving, so things like traffic and navigation rather than horoscopes and stock quotes (although we can deliver that kind of information as well). We can deliver applications to any device that can connect to the Internet, be it a portable device or something that’s embedded in the car itself.
We’re going beyond routine traffic reports. So you can say to yourself: “If I leave now for home, it’s going to take half an hour, but if I wait an hour, it’ll take me 45 minutes.” We’re pulling in information from a lot of different places.
Seattle24x7: How about diagnostics?
Ross: We’re very involved in diagnostics. Right now, the “Check Engine” light comes on, and you don’t really know what that means. We’re aiming to let you know how serious a problem it is, what it’s going to cost to fix it, and even connecting you to repair facilities so you can schedule an appointment. The system can also check your oil and other vital fluids.
Seattle24x7: Any other new user-experiences to look forward to?
Ross: We’re focusing on how to make people’s experiences 1) easier, 2) safer, and 3) more entertaining. As it relates to entertainment, we’re working with companies like Audible.com, where we can make their audio content available to people while they’re driving.
Here’s a morning scenario: You’re driving along and you hear the current traffic conditions, then you respond to office email, and then you have the Wall Street Journal read to you. And if there’s a new road accident or new e-mail, you’d be notified of that.
Seattle24x7: Who are your current clients?
Ross: One of our most prominent existing clients is Casio; we’re getting their Casseopia PDA product to work as a telematic device in the car. Locally, we’ve been working with Paccar, builders of the Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks, to enable their vehicles with telematic solutions.
Seattle24x7: The Input/Output for telematics is obviously different — listening to a voice and speaking the commands.
Ross: Exactly. When you use a wireless PDA outside your car, you look at a screen and use a stylus and point and click and navigate — you don’t have that luxury while driving.
Seattle24x7: There are so-called Tier I automotive suppliers, such as Delphi Automotive and Visteon, that are the predominant suppliers to the automakers. Are you driving product through these providers or circumventing them?
Ross: We’re doing both. We’re working with a number of the Tier I suppliers. And we’re also working with the automakers themselves. The types of companies the automakers are working with are changing. Their suppliers are no longer the traditional Tier I’s, but are now also becoming companies like a Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Microsoft, or even smaller companies like InfoMove.
Seattle24x7: Is there any competition with these suppliers?
Ross: InfoMove focuses on services that are software-driven, which isn’t really the expertise of a company like Visteon or Delphi. So they’re more likely a partner of ours than a competitor long term. We’re also developing software that will run from an ASP type model. So in addition to having the software applications and all the various pieces to make it work, we actually run the application services for our partners.
Seattle24x7: There’s an incredible scalability implied here.
Ross: As we’re working with the OEMs, we need to be scalable to tens of millions of users, ultimately. We’re building our systems to scale to that kind of capacity.
Seattle24x7: How has your funding progressed?
Ross: We completed an angel round in September 1999, for about $3.4 million. Then we closed a Series A in March 2000 for $5.5 million, from strategic investors — local companies Bsquare and InfoSpace, but also large Japanese companies–telecom giant NTT and Mitsui Content.
We’re in the middle of a Series B now. A portion of that is from a German publicly traded company called ComROAD AG, which partners with European wireless carriers to deliver telematic services in the aftermarket. In the current round we’re in, we’ll probably be raising $20 to $30 million.
Seattle24x7: Whom do you consider to be your closest competitor?
Ross: It’s a little murky. There’s a French company called Webraska that does some similar applications, but theirs are geared primarily toward cell phones.
Seattle24x7: What kind of software platform are you using to develop your applications?
Ross: It’s hard to know which platform will become successful in the future. So we’re setup to be flexible. Sure, it would make our life a lot easier if there were a standardized platform out there. But this space is so new that it’d be a mistake to commit to anything at this point. Even Microsoft, frankly, recognizes the fact that they may ultimately want to serve non-Windows based systems.
Seattle24x7: What are the competing standards?
Ross: There are three predominant types of platforms, two of which are similar — the Car.Net platform [from Microsoft] and what’s called the Java Car platform, a Linux-based derivative using Java. The third is a voice-recognition technology over cellular phones to drive voice-portal type services. Voice recognition would be purely thin-client in nature. It wouldn’t be a computer in the car, per se, but really a connection to a server that was providing information.
Seattle24x7: One of the hot buttons in this area is privacy. How do you address the issue?
Ross: We just know you as a number. We would never be able to share with anybody where Larry was located at this point in time. What’s more, we fully enable the end-user to control what information they receive, when, and how they receive it, but also what info they make available and to whom. Part of our feature set is a level of personalization that controls how you share information with others.
Seattle24x7: The consumer can choose the level of integration?
Ross: Exactly. For example, from your desktop you can synch your Palm device with your Outlook so that you have all your contacts on your Palm. When you get in your car, you can access those contacts. Likewise, when you’re on a portal like MSN, and you profile the news, stock quotes and your horoscope, you can access that same info in the car via the same profile.
Seattle24x7: InfoMove sounds a lot like an air ground controller.
Ross: Our system is acting as an advocate for the driver in terms of seeking out and sorting through information, because the driver doesn’t have the ability to look for or absorb a lot of info.
Seattle24x7: When will we be able to test drive an InfoMove solution?
Ross: We’ll have some trial systems available in a beta environment in mid-March. Our partners are somewhat bound by their cycles. But you’ll see commercial deployment through Casio and others in the fourth quarter of this year. In terms of our system in newly constructed cars, we’re working with a partner and doing a solution that will come out for a 2003 model release. So it will be released in the fall of 2002.
Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.
10635 NE 38th Pl., Suite A
Kirkland, WA 98033
Company founded: 1998.
President and CEO: Peter Holland
COO: Thomas J. Ross, Jr
CTO: Dr. Michael B. Mathews Ph.D.
VP, Engineering: Mark H. Tyerman
VP, Marketing: Susanne Foster
VP, Investor Relations: Scott Larson
Major Investors: Local companies Bsquare and InfoSpace, also Japanese companies NTT and Mitsui Content, ComROAD AG of Germany.