While my car was in the dealer's workshop having its annual checkup last week I did the usual nerdy thing of sneaking into the showroom to play with the toys in the new models. OK, so my car has some nifty electronics built in, including satnav with traffic updates and a connection for my phone. But, wow, the latest stuff is mind-blowing. It took me back to Microsoft's Web Tech-Ed in 1998, when a guy drove a Jaguar onto the stage and proceeded to talk about the vehicle-integrated Internet.
Supposedly, way back in 1998 (which was, you realize, 14 years ago) we were on the verge of having a PC built into our cars that would give full access to the Internet, email, messaging, and more. Yet it never really happened; the nearest I ever got was plugging my laptop into the cigarette lighter and driving round looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Anyway, when the sales guy finally decided he should come over and shoo this scruffy geek out of his pristine showroom, I managed to distract him by asking lots of technical questions. It seems that as well as satnav with full satellite image overlays stored on a hard drive built into the car, it also allows you to upload compressed music files and play them just like in Windows Media Player or an MP3 player. Or you can play music direct from your smartphone.
And, of course, the satnav uses address data stored on your smartphone, while the integrated phone system even stores a list of contacts with phone numbers you can call directly in conjunction with your smartphone. And it displays, and even lets you send, SMS text messages through your smartphone. What's more, if you have the right smartphone it will even display and let you compose emails through the onboard menus and commands. Which are also voice-activated.
Yes, there's a calendar built in which will display the appointments stored on your smartphone. And, yes, you can browse the web. In fact you can use the web to find destination locations for your satnav, and even call phone numbers displayed in web pages (in conjunction with your smartphone). Plus, when you play a CD in your car (yes, it still has a CD\DVD player) you can even use a special web-based service to look up the album details and display a picture of the album cover. Though you probably need the right smartphone for this as well.
It's all very amazing, but what it means is that your car is really just a huge and very expensive Bluetooth headset. And it only works fully if you have the right kind of smartphone. Maybe, in future, changing your car won't be a matter of finding one with the right performance/running cost ratio, number of seats, and color. Instead, you'll need to look for one that's compatible with your phone.
And if you lose or break your phone, and buy a different one, you'll probably have to change your car as well...