A cautious (or cynical) observer might consider all of this hoo-ha of placing an entire communications "command center" inside of theoretically every vehicle on the road a bit of costly hardware overkill.

The argument goes that it might be affordable for those with hefty six-figure salariesand bonuses, but what average Joe or Jane would be willing to spend thousands of dollars to outfit their Focus or Cavalier with the equivalent of a PC, voice-activated control module, cell phone, active matrix color LCD screen, GPS system, satellite receiver and special multi-band XM or Sirius satellite radio in a car where they spend less than 10% of their time?

The fact that General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. both announced that they'll have mobile multimedia in their vehicles in this calendar year "is a litmus test to see if customers will buy these options," says a slightly skeptical Morris Kindig, president of Tier One, Market Insights for Automotive Electronics, based in Mountain View, CA. "And to see if they'll stay with the subscriptions and the music and news that come with these offerings.

"Automakers repeatedly say the services like auto PC is a $1,200 option," says Mr. Kindig, "but they are failing to recognize that we're at a point of saturation as to cost."

With that in mind, some observers such as Mr. Kindig suggest that the information revolution will only hit cars with a big whammy when hardware becomes more affordable and likely more portable. "Automakers are in a bind," says Mr. Kindig. "They can't get the market penetrations to get into the mid- and lower- end cars. And they're competing against the consumer electronics people, who say 'We can give you everything you want on a hand-held notebook for $700 or $800 with a cellular port.'

"The best the automotive community can expect is to add a docking station," says Mr. Kindig.

Proponents argue that the average Joe or Jane obviously won't be willing to re-mortgage the house to get this spiffy high-tech stuff in their Saturn or Sentra, but as the volumes go up, certainly the price will come down.

Paul Hansen, publisher of the Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics in Rye, NH, thinks the price point to make mobile multimedia attractive for a huge number of customers will be "about $500."

Aside from price, another significant hurdle to widespread mobile multimedia, Mr. Kindig suggests, is safety.

"The government is not going to allow a lot of interactivity in the driver area," Mr. Kindig argues. "There is a 15% to 20% increase in accident frequency since we've had cell phones. And there's a 70% increase in those actually using cell phones (during an accident). They've gone back to the cell phone records and found out that people were on the phone when an accident occurred."

But Mr. Hansen counters that for safety's sake many devices such as navigation or phones are purposely designed for use in the car. "The key to having it (designed into) a vehicle is that the display needs to be perfectly positioned with the right glance angle. The ergonomics are very important. It also has to be voice-activated. Speech recognition is very important (to provide hands-free use)."

Remember the car phone? Not cellular phones, mind you, but singular purpose-built car phones that were hard-wired into the console in the front seat or hung from a not-too-attractive clip bolted to the dash. Most car phones seen today are sitting on a pile of electronic equipment in the small "guys" section at neighborhood garage sales with a sign that says: "Make an offer."

But Mr. Hansen and Steven Buytaert, chief executive officer of SmartMove Vehicle Communication of Leuven, Belgium, note that many consumer electronics items began their lives as expensive one-and-only devices.

Families in the '30s gathered around "the" radio. But what household today doesn't have at least a half-dozen radios? And "the" television of the '50s has made its way into several other locations in the house - whether for video games in the basement, a diminutive 13-incher in the kitchen or a big screen monster (with surround sound) in the family room.

The same can be said, by extension, for all of the gadgets that will make up a mobile multimedia system.

"As electronics continue to be less and less expensive, it will not be redundant to have two cell phones," says Mr. Hansen. "One a portable, the other in the car - if, for example, the one in the car only costs $5."

Mr. Buytaert of SmartMove also notes that despite the low price consumers pay for that cell phone it "probably still costs $100 to produce." But obviously the cell-phone company wants to sell you its service.

Taken to its logical conclusion, you might someday get a communications command center inside a vehicle for that same low price because automakers, mapmakers, music companies and other information providers will reap their profits quite nicely, thank you, not from the hardware, but from charges for the services, or perhaps even the advertising message, that hardware will deliver.

Mr. Hansen says to look at what Ford has done recently by making home computers available for a small fee to all of its employees. "It won't happen tomorrow, but I still stick to the prediction I made in 1998 when I thought we'd see $5 billion of multimedia in vehicles by 2010," he says. "By 2010 multimedia devices will be every bit as typical as a CD player in cars."

With the new millennium less than a week old, automakers and electronics wizards both trotted out their visions of the mobile multimedia future in January at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and less than a week later at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Some notable features to keep an eye on:

Omnipoint, the global cell-phone folks, are out to prove that there's more to mobile multimedia than just theory. They pulled up in front of Detroit's Cobo Center with a Lincoln Navigator fitted with a Pentium III PC with LCD screen, floppy drive, CD-ROM, DVD port and an infrared keyboard in the back seat. Up front was a voice-activated cell phone, climate control, sound system and navigation system. Journalists were invited to take a ride.

At the driver's right elbow is a cradle housing the GSM cell phone, which is linked to a modem that fits neatly inside the rear fender on the passenger side, giving the computer Internet access.

While all the programs hadn't been actually loaded yet on the backseat computer, we did get to briefly surf the web and make a couple of phone calls.

Delphi Delco Electronics and Visteon Automotive Systems both make their first appearance at the CES in Las Vegas.

Delphi folks project the mobile multimedia market to grow by 25% to 30% over the next five years. Delphi shows off its Communiport system that integrates cell phone, audio, Internet, navigation, audio/video, personal computers and displays. Visteon offers a similar package it calls ICES.

Both use the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), a more limited Internet browser. Instead of the standard HTML, it uses WML (wireless markup language) to accommodate applications with smaller, more limited displays like cell phones or vehicle multimedia systems. It's linked to voice-activated controls to allow complete hands-free access to the Internet. Delphi says its WAP browser capabilities will appear in vehicles by 2002.

One of the more intriguing features coming down the pike is Bluetooth wireless technology. It's whimsically named after the Danish king of the 10th century who unified all of the Viking kingdoms under one crown.

A Bluetooth Special Interest Group includes more than 1,200 companies, including Delphi, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba. It allows wireless communications between a wide array of computing and communications devices over a common standardized RF communications link. It's expected to make its market debut in 2002.

It's similar in function to wireless infrared currently available on palmtops, laptops and printers, but unlike infrared connections it is not limited to line-of-sight. With an estimated range of 30 feet, Bluetooth can connect cell phones to personal digital assistants, navigation systems and in-vehicle voice command systems.

MP3 is short for the audio part (layer 3) of the MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group) specification. It allows digital audio files to be compressed by a factor of 10 without compromising sound quality. College students are big on downloading MP3 files and/or swapping them with friends (which makes the music industry nervous). Delphi offers an MP3 option on its in-dash sound system that can be configured to accept either CD-ROMs or flash memory cards, or from a disk drive or a wireless download.

SmartMove is a five-year old company that began with two Belgians and a vision. They have $10 million in venture capital and aim to be the guys who will organize vehicle telematics for the masses.

Remember VHS vs. Beta? Eight tracks vs. cassettes? SmartMove is trying to get one step ahead of the pack - many of whom could easily lock up innovation by tying a proprietary knot around future mobile applications.

They are offering to serve as a little bit of trail guide/hall monitor and zoning board. They are designing a system with an open architecture - using Java script - that any vendor could hang a device or service onto, maybe even some devices or services that haven't yet been thought of. The goal is to let the service company provide the service - be it navigation, audio, e-mail or phone - and leave the finer details of the delivery method (both software and hardware) to Smart Move. Watch for a major announcement at this month's SAE.

SmartMove's current base unit - which theoretically could serve as the main CPU for any function in the vehicle - carries about 250 megabytes of storage and works on the equivalent of "a low-end Pentium" processor. But the company suggests that a system with 10 gigabytes of mass storage with much higher processing speeds will be rolling down the road within five years.