Car Forward: Gadgets and Apps for Business Owners On the Go Thanks to better mobile networks, a new generation of touch- and voice-enabled products and fresh interest from profit-starved automakers, the vehicles we drive to work every day are becoming the places we do work every day.
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Meet your new business partner: your car.
"Very soon, really any business or employee who wants it is going to be able to interact with their vehicles in new ways," says David Haight, vice president of business development at AT&T's emerging devices organization, which is based in Atlanta.
Considering that these days there aren't enough ways--or places--to make money, here's our roundup of smart car gadgets and apps for a small firm. Get these work tools in roughly this order, and that car or truck of yours could become the most profitable asset you have.
Google Maps Navigation
What it is: Basic, yet powerful, in-car navigation built right into an Android smartphone.
What's smart: Most reasonably powerful portable devices running code like Google's Android OS, Apple OS, BlackBerry OS or Windows Phone have mapping and location-based tools built right in. But Google Maps Navigation is the car-friendly, by-turn instruction tool to get. Its voice recognition and detailed nav functions make it the best free upgrade over, say, basic Google Maps.
What's not so smart: As powerful as these entry-level tools might be, they won't hold up under consistent use. Remember, you are navigating on your multitasking smartphone, which gets and makes phone calls, streams music and handles your work e-mail. Even with moderate use, say 20 minutes a day, all that app juggling while driving gets old fast.
Image Courtesy of automobilemag.com
Navigon Mobile-Navigator for iPhone, Android and Windows Phone
Price: Around $60
What it is: A full-featured navigation and vehicle-management app that's perfect for work and runs on most any smartphone.
What's smart: Of what must be hundreds of third-party, vehicle-savvy intelligent apps found in the Android Market, the Apple App Store, BlackBerry App World or Windows Marketplace for Mobile, MobileNavigator is one of the best. It has traditional by-turn navigation and assistance with finding parking, and its supports are crazy-accurate, 3-D, forward-looking renderings of exits and destinations. "It's really about getting to the data you need with the very least clicks possible," says Bernd Hahn, head of iNavigation for Navigon. "Once you get the feel for how this app is built, most users find it tough to go back to more traditional navigation tools."
What's not so smart: As cool as the Navigon app is, smartphone nav tools still run from smartphone batteries--which run down pretty much in one drive. So a connection to your vehicle's power supply is a must.
Cobra Electronics iRadar
What it is: This gadget acts as a set of virtual eyes that look up the road for speed traps, red-light cameras and all sorts of annoyances that keep you from getting where you need to go.
What's smart: Besides being a dirt-cheap way to bring first-quality radar detection to your work vehicle, the iRadar renders a fabulous log of where you've driven and what issues you've found for later review, essentially giving you the chance to learn about your service routes as you drive them. "What we are seeing here is the return of the early days of CB radio," says Sally Washlow, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Cobra Electronics. "These new tools are giving people that sense of place and community around them that radios provided, but they do it with new technologies."
What's not so smart: For all its features and power, the iRadar takes some understanding to use, so plan for some serious "sit down and learn the thing" time.
Tripp Lite PV375 Power Inverter
What it is: Puts the power you get from the wall in your office into your car.
What's smart: If you think taming the tangle of power plugs and connectors in your office is ugly, try doing it in your vehicle. But this Tripp Lite inverter turns car power into wall power, meaning you can ditch all those silly car adapters and just use the chargers you already own. Plus, the inverter is much kinder to your delicate smart-device batteries.
What's not so smart: The Tripp Lite is a sophisticated in-car charging solution, but it still needs some techno-TLC. For example, electronics can overcharge in your car just like they can in the wall of your home or office. Be sure to unplug your electronics before you start your car.
Nuance Communications Dragon Go!
What it is: Top-quality voice recognition for mobile devices that is surprisingly effective in work vehicles.
What's smart: For commercial driving, there is no debate about texting and driving: You do it at your own financial and legal peril. You simply must learn to do all basic business tasks with voice commands rather than with your fingers. While far from perfect, Nuance deserves credit for creating a voice-rec tool that works well in cars. Dragon Go! not only does the basics for voice processing--managing commands and finding routes--it also attempts to guess what you want when you ask for something. Say, "Best prices on hammers," and you'll get local business search guides. "We are trying to bring the so-called natural language process to the mobile experience," says Vlad Sejnoha, chief technology officer for Nuance Communications. "And cars are a really interesting space for us. We used to have a separate division for it. But now we consider the car just another mobile device."
What's not so smart: Dragon Go! works, but remember: You are still communicating inside a moving, noisy car. You need to speak slowly, clearly and intelligently to get things done.
Got2bWireless the Voice
Price: Due out Q4 2011, $90
What it is: This ultra-simple, self-installable voice-control module controls just about any function in a car or on a smartphone.
What's smart: Got2bWireless specializes in voice-control tools that just about anybody can afford and use. Assuming even a basic understanding of how to pair a Bluetooth device like a headset with your car's features, The Voice lets you do everything from answer basic inbound phone calls to listen to and respond to e-mails. "We are trying to bring sophisticated voice activation within reach of the average consumer or business," says Tim Suri, executive vice president and founder of Got2bWireless. "You want to be able to take the call, end a call and knock out 30 e-mails on a 30-minute commute to work. And we can deliver that."
What's not so smart: For all of Got2bWireless's ease of use and features, you are still dealing with complex voice-recognition software. If you don't make the effort to learn how to use the thing properly, you are pretty much wasting your time.
Pioneer Electronics AppRadio
What it is: Besides being a high-quality audio-video system for your car, the 6-inch, touch-activated screen connects to information and apps on a user's iPod Touch or iPhone.
What's smart: You got that right: The AppRadio puts what's in your iPhone in your car. Not all of it, mind you. The world--and your fleeting behind-the-wheel attention span--is not ready for that, which means that as of now only a handful of apps are supported. But for our money, the contacts and calendar functions alone are worth the price. And company executives say work-oriented task-management functions will be available soon. "By using the iPhone processor, we can make a very powerful in-car device much cheaper than if we had to build one from scratch," says Ted Cardenas, director of marketing for the car electronics division at Pioneer. "And we see the AppRadio as the perfect platform for doing pretty much everything you do with a smartphone, but safely as you drive."
What's not so smart: Guess what? The iPhone turns out to be a surprisingly clumsy behind-the-wheel interface, even with Pioneer cleaning up some of the device's rough edges. If you are doing lots and lots of calling, navigating or searching, you are almost certainly better off investing in a purpose-built smart-car interface aimed at work.