It's hard to tell the players even if you do have a scorecard.

The big guns are lining up for a chance to grab an even bigger share of your time and mine while using a communication portal at home, in the car — or in your pocket — to find out when to schedule the next oil change, find the nearest vet, how to avoid that traffic jam just up ahead and listen to that MP3 of Willie Nelson singing Marvin Gaye's greatest hits.

Technically advanced, third-generation G3 cell phones, with speeds 40 times faster than current models, begin to roll out later this year, offering Internet-like connectivity (in theory) wherever and whenever you want it. Add wireless Bluetooth, and your phone can communicate with your PDA, GPS or any other Bluetooth compatible display — on your laptop or even on your dashboard.

The technology is on a roll. Wider bandwidth, faster transmission — and increasingly robust processors that offer up to twice the processing speed with only half the power — are being offered to developers by Intel Corp. (Xscale) and Acunia NV (Xingu).

But the devil is in the details.

Do programmers work with Sun Microsystem's Java or Microsoft's Car.Net?

Can automakers assume that everyone will carry a cell phone that can obtain a dial tone anywhere in the country, or do they have to wire in a separate phone that will guarantee their safety/security/onboard diagnostics systems are operating 24/7?

And just what will people be willing to pay for in their telematics package?

General Motors Corp.'s OnStar claims close to 2 million subscribers, but analysts say the renewal rates are in the 30% range, much lower than the 70% or more that analysts predict is needed to provide a profitable existence.

And those predictions 18 months ago by consultants at UBS Warburg that U.S. telematics revenues would hit $22 billion by 2010 have been revised significantly downward in a recent study by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. Their best guess is about $14.6 billion.

Not unlike other gee-whiz technologies, “The expectations and the hype were high, at first,” notes Steven Buytaert, co-CEO of Acunia NV, “but now a bit of reality has set in.”

A 3-day ramble through the Michigan Hall (aka the basement) of Detroit's Cobo Center last month for the Digital Car Conference — a joint effort of the Consumer Electronics Assn. and SAE — generated a wealth of questions, but fewer answers.

It appears everyone agrees that a common open architecture is key to telematics success — in fact most speakers underscored that phrase. But Microsoft doesn't want to pay Sun to use Java, so it's developed its own Car.Net system. Think of it as choosing Netscape or Windows Explorer for a browser, or whether you'll use a Mac or PC operating system. Admittedly, most folks can do whatever they want with one or the other. But often, some applications run better on one or the other.

And if you're offering a telematics service or a piece of hardware, which do you choose? Or do you pay the extra programming and hardware costs to offer both and hope the consumer will eventually pick up the higher tab?

Even Bluetooth — heavily hyped for its ability to wirelessly connect devices at 1 Mb/sec. within a range of 30 ft. (9m) — has serious competition. The IEEE 802.11b protocol, also known as Wi-Fi, offers a range of up to 300 ft. (91m) at speeds of 11 Mb/sec. The downside of Wi-Fi is that it needs much more power, something that makes it less useful on small handheld devices such as PDAs or cell phones.

Left unresolved, for now, are plenty of other issues. In-vehicle systems need a high-speed bus or pathway to faultlessly communicate both within and outside the vehicle for perhaps more critical issues such as wheel speed, tire pressure, throttle, valve and emissions control. A botched download of that Willie Nelson MP3 is much less critical than an air bag deployment message that never triggers a 911 call.

And what is that “killer ap” that will drive consumers into a buying frenzy that will make telematics a must-have technology? Most speakers and attendees agree that there may not be one. In much the same way that desktops and laptops allow each user to load up with his or her necessary programs and devices, the same likely will apply to telematics.

In that sense, say many, don't look for a revolution, but an evolution in the technology. Put another way, Robert K. Repholz, head of business development for Microsoft Corp.'s Automotive Business Unit, notes that one of the early applications for the steam engine was to automatically power oars. He points out that it wasn't until the technology was in use that someone figured out how to more effectively use the power of the engine via a paddlewheel.

Fans of telematics will have plenty of opportunities over the next few weeks to stay on top of the discussion via the eAuto World 2002 conference at the Ritz Carlton in Dearborn, MI, on April 17 and 18 and the Telematics Update Seminars, planned for the Intercontinental Hotel in Stuttgart April 10 and 11 and Detroit's Cobo Center May 15 and 16.