This was the first time I've ever been to CES. I knew CES is the largest consumer oriented electronic show and despite a 10% reduction in attendance, this year did not disappoint in terms of size. Fibreoptic and I walked for 4 days straight and still didn't see all of the show, which takes up the entire Las Vegas convention center and spills over to several nearby hotels.

So, what were my impressions? The overwhelming sense I got was that car computing is alive and well but is unlikely to include traditional computers in the next few years. The days of the car PC are numbered.

Smaller and Smaller

The trend on the forums for the past several years has been more towards innovation on the software development side rather than the hardware side. Although the learning curve may be steep for newbies, car PC veterans know that it is trivial to install a PC in a car. Power supplies, screens, hard drives and motherboards that can survive and operate reliably in the car are readily available and easy to install. While performance differences command differing price points, car PC hardware is effectively a commodity.

Combine this with the trend of shrinking hardware size whether form factor, power requirements or storage, along with continuing price reductions however you measure the cost (per megabyte, per CPU cycle, per watt) and the car PC is an endangered species. Why? Because small device like smartphones are getting both smarter and more powerful.

These phones are destined to be more than just application-enabled handheld devices. They represent a product that is increasing in storage, computational capability, full time connectivity whether bluetooth, WiFi, or cellular. Right now, they represent a simply a communication component that can link your car PC to data or voice networks but as they become more powerful they will eventually displace the PC in the car.

Consider how close a device such as an iPhone comes to replacing a PC in the car right now. The big apps for car PC's such as music, video, web browsing, GPS and high speed internet are all available. Turn by turn navigation and voice control are not on the iPhone but doubtlessly they will be and they are available on other phones today.

Of course, there are still compromises. Phones have a visually intensive interface, limited storage, proprietary protocols and OS capabilities, limited graphics capabilities and slower CPU's than full-blown PC's. Here's why I don't see that as a problem in the near future:

The move of desktop applications to the net via web applications such as Google apps like gmail, mapping, calendars, chat and so forth offload the processing to systems on the net. That means the net computes your routings rather than your PC. It also offloads the storage requirement for data like maps while permitting access to live, updated information like traffic, weather, video and so forth. Connected computers have much more value in the car than non-connected ones.

What Does the Future Look Like?

So, what do I think this new future of car computing will look like? I think within the next five years we will see a shift from hardware in the car to a mobile device that you carry on your person. This device will help deliver what I call "Webiquity," the intersection of the right information to the right person at the right time, and on the right device. Webiquity exists in a limited way today for example, whenever Google asks you if you meant to inquire about movie times instead of moive times, but it doesn't span the majority of our human activity.

When do I think a 'magic' device or phone will be delivered? First, I doubt if we will recognize it when it first appears. I certainly never connected the idea of putting a modern PC in my car when IBM delivered the PS/1. It will probably emerge through gradual experimentation and the ease of fitting crucial missing links in place.

Always Connected

The main link is advances in communications. It's pretty clear that if you are willing to pay for it, you can get net access most of the time. As the coverage becomes better and the cost for connectivity continues to drop, our attention will turn towards the possibility of actually depending on the net for things we can't store on our devices -such as weather, dynamic traffic, gas prices and so forth.

In fact, current iPhones might make a pretty good car PC except for the screen and the interface. Even if there were an easy way to link the phone's display or drive a separate display (say, by bluetooth or WiFi, or even by a docking mechanism), we'd still have the problem of the interface and extending the functionality of the phone in the car.

Hardware Agnostic

Therefore it's not necessarily a lock to say that this device will be a phone. As hardware gets smaller and more powerful, non-handset makers will be innovating to offer connectivity on new and different types of devices. Who knows? It may not be a single device at all. It might be a series of devices and interfaces that you interact with as you move from home to car to office and back. All I know is that the results will be small, powerful, and connected.

Given the ability of a web browser to access and run most any kind of web application running on nearly any type of OS, I expect the OS in the car device to become less and less of an issue except for specific hardware interface issues. The OS will still matter on the web server, but the end result -the application being run by the client, will be less and less important.

So, while one piece of the puzzle is probably hardware -something like a monitor that is wireless or cellular and can interface with your handheld device, the other piece is software.

The Software Will Be The Solution

Once we can reliably depend on the mobile net, we'll start shifting our attention from front ends that are tied to an OS to front ends or voice interfaces that are built on the web, for our cars. We'll be able to mash up services, figure out routings, get directions, find phone numbers, view webcams and stream data in both directions.

Of course, we can already do that in some of the most advanced car PC installations. The best part will be the applications we haven't thought of yet. Right now, nascent applications that are location aware are just now beginning to be developed. Consider how cool would it be if you could conjure up Zillow while driving through neighborhoods hunting for houses? School performance, tax data, things to do and see would be available to you on the move. How about dynamic GPS reroutes based on traffic density reports online? Or instant comparison and evaluation of codes thrown by your car's OBDII port to tell you whether you need to head to the nearest mechanic right away or whether that sound the car is making can wait a day or so?

It may all sound a bit far out right now but what I saw at CES confirmed what I already thought. The days of the car PC are numbered. It may die a slow and lingering death, but evolution is going to catch up with it eventually. I think sooner than later.