Safety concerns may help Wingcast

Techbit
Harel Kodesh

Title: CEO, Wingcast

Favorite Web sites: webmx.com, half.com, 1sttech.com, msn.com

Favorite tech tool or gadget: iPAQ Pocket PC

Laptop: Sony VAIO

IT trends he’s watching: Airtime usage, application environment for cell phones

Terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington could make it easier to sell safety-related in-car telematics services to consumers, predicts Wingcast CEO Harel Kodesh.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Kodesh thought Wingcast (wingcast.com) and telematics service providers faced a tough sell. The company’s research found that 70 percent of consumers don’t understand how tele-matics services can benefit them.

But stories of callers aboard the doomed airliners who used their cell phones to talk to families or authorities before the jets crashed showed the value of the devices.

Safety and security services already were going to be a big part of what Wingcast offers. Ford Motor Co. (ford.com) and Qualcomm Inc. (qualcomm.com) created Wingcast LLC, of San Diego, in mid-2000 to develop a telematics system and services for Ford vehicles. Wingcast will have the system ready for installation on Ford’s 2003 models and will offer a full range of services, Kodesh said. Wingcast also is scheduled to debut on Nissans in North America in the 2003 model year.

Security sells

“I think it will be easier now when people start demanding safety and security,” Kodesh said. “They are going to start looking at certain features that have to be in the car. But it’s going to take some time, and the industry is moving by model year.”

Although there have been some press reports that Wingcast is behind schedule, Kodesh said the company is ready. He would not disclose services, but said they would fall into three categories: safety and security, communications and empowerment.

“I define empowerment as services that allow you to do more stuff in the car, specific systems that you can use, traffic, weather, etc.,” Kodesh said. “I don’t think we’ll go very deep on the empowerment services at launch, because really we would like to get some customer feedback.”

Forrester Research Inc., in its latest study on the potential of the telematics market, said Wingcast will debut with a voice-driven interface. Wingcast will deliver real-time route guidance and direct users to local merchants.

But when Wingcast signs up its first subscribers next fall, it will be more than three years and more than 1.5 million customers behind OnStar, General Motors’ telematics service, says Dan Garretson, an analyst at Forrester (forrester.com) in Cambridge, Mass. OnStar claims it is adding 5,000 subscribers per day.

Forrester recommends that Wingcast buy ATX Technologies Inc.

(atxtechnologies.com), a service provider with which Ford’s Lincoln Mercury Division already does business.

On Sept. 25, Ford and ATX unveiled Lincoln VCS, short for Vehicle Communications System, Lincoln’s third-generation telematics program. Lincoln pioneered in-vehicle telematics when it teamed with ATX and Motorola Inc. in 1996 to introduce Lincoln RESCU, the program Lincoln VCS replaces.

ATX, of Irving, Texas, also has been the telematics service provider to Mercedes-Benz drivers in North America since the 1999 model year. In all, ATX has about 250,000 subscribers.

Quick access

With the company’s customer base and experience managing telematics operations, Wingcast would gain access to valuable in-market experience and instantly build market momentum to roll out services, Garretson said.

But are Ford customers interested in paying for telematics services a year from now when the automaker begins launching its 2003 models?

“I definitely think this is a market that is going to grow quite rapidly,” Garretson said. “But I don’t think it’s going to be any of this sophisticated service — you hear Wingcast talking about taking telematics to the next level with a lot of personal productivity applications. I think this is really just about what people are already doing in the car, except that it goes from a cell phone on the seat beside them to an embedded device.”

Kodesh, former chief of Microsoft Corp.’s mobile division, said Wingcast would survey consumers to determine what they are willing to pay for various bundles of telematics services.

“The two hours in the car is just becoming such a big part of the day,” Kodesh said. “It’s very difficult to get by without doing the things that you need to do.”

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