Wireless venture Wingcast falls

Last week, not quite two years after creating a joint company called Wingcast LLC to build wireless systems for cars and trucks, Ford Motor Co. and Qualcomm Inc. pulled the plug on it.

Finally, a collision with reality.

Not surprisingly, neither company is saying much about it. "We goofed" isn't something you hear very often in American business. It's more along the lines of "changing business dynamics required an adjustment in corporate resources."

The decision seems sudden. Wingcast signed a deal in May to supply wireless systems for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. And just a couple of weeks ago, the company said it would incorporate mapping software from Geographic Data Technology Inc.

Reports said Ford had an 85 percent stake in Wingcast and had been the sole source of funding for most of Wingcast's brief life. QualComm, the Code Division Multiple Access cellular pioneer, had a 15 percent stake in the venture, having invested about US$25 million. Which means Ford's share was - well, a lot.

When launching Wingcast in July 2000, Ford's then-president Jac Nasser was quoted as saying, "Wingcast is Ford's vehicle [one hopes the pun was unintentional] for redefining the future of mobile communications. We are not only transforming the automobile into the next mobile portal, but we also are creating a new company that will develop and deliver a collection of leading-edge technologies and services."

It sounds better than saying, "we're going to pump a ton of money into a hare-brained scheme that may or may not pan out."

Telematics, or "wireless in-vehicle communications and navigation systems," has been both a symptom and a source of the science-fiction ecstasy around wireless communications. "Just imagine... what if... will enable... new era... critical mass." Blah, blah, blah.

You'll find the same cliches in press releases for the wireless Internet, public-access Wi-Fi hotspots, wireless last mile, and all the rest of the technological delusions.

Most drivers, whether they cruise blissfully and blindly until they stumble onto the right route or roll down the window and ask the first human they see for directions, aren't likely to pay a lot - or maybe anything - for some low-resolution, itty-bitty screen linked to a global positioning system.

Think of the reality: A soccer mom (or dad) in a car packed with shrieking kids and the dog, with DVD and CD players blaring - and through it all, the creepy computerized voice of the in-vehicle communications system adding to the confused din. Soothingly it says, "You've got mail," or "David is calling you - priority: urgent," or "Please contact your Ford dealer to check the right rear shock absorber's torsion coefficient which is dangerously high and could cause a catastrophic failure under certain conditions. For more information, say, 'details.'"It's enough to make one's blood run cold.

The real uses of wireless technologies are going to be much slower to arrive, and will be much more, ahem, pedestrian than Ford and Qualcomm believed two years ago, and many still believe today. The uses will be things like the transponders today in cars exiting the Massachusetts Turnpike, automatically and electronically crediting or debiting an account for the correct toll.

Or they'll be simple, almost bulletproof radio modules that can attach to shipping containers, truck loads, and inventory pallets, and can be tracked through sprawling warehouse or assembly plants, registering with enterprise resource planning systems.

Or perhaps simple wireless sensors that detect temperature or weight or volume changes, pass the data to a server, which then updates a database, along with a manager's monitoring screen.

Wingcast is probably just the first of the wireless equivalent of the electronic carving knife of the 1960s. Good riddance.

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