Thursday, March 13, 2008

Apple Inspires Tesla's All-Electric Sports Car

Hey, you think that two weeks is a long wait for the latest Apple MacBook to get into stores?

Well, that is nothing compared to how long – 18 months – that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor George Clooney and Google's Larry Page have waited for the first all-electric sports car ever to be sold in the U.S.

The sleek $100,000 Tesla sports car goes into production on Monday – with actual deliveries starting in a few weeks. The arrival of the car, offered by a closely-watched company in San Carlos, California, will delight the many celebrities who have ordered it. The Tesla Roadster represents a new trend in electric vehicles, the merger of automotive engineering with the ethos and elan of Silicon Valley.

"The company that we strive to emulate is Apple,” says Daryl Siry, Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Service at Tesla Motoros. “We want to be a company that innovates not only on the tech side but also on the design side. It is about developing cars but also about customer experience.”

While Siry's comparison between an all-electric sports car and an Apple's product line might seem like a stretch, Tesla's car is unquestionably a breakthrough, offering the equivalent of 100 miles to the gallon – and a driving range of 220 miles before a re-charge – for roughly the same price of a conventional Porsche 911 sports car.

One morning earlier this week, a silver Tesla is parked by the entrance of the company's headquarters. The car is receiving an electric charge from a thick electric cord plugged into a socket on its left side, where normally gasoline might go.

The car being charged in the morning sun is a prototype Tesla. Not only cars are getting charged this morning, which happens to be the day when one of the company's engineers arrives with plate after plate of freshly baked cookies – hundreds of them in all, more than enough to satisfy the 180 people who work at Tesla's main office.

“Making an all-electric car go fast is the easiest challenge,” says Mr. Siry, Tesla. “Making it go far is the challenge.”

Unlike other electric cars, Tesla's model does not have a traditional lead-acid battery. Instead, it runs on a lithium-ion battery that is lighter and longer-lasting. Nevertheless, the car will need to pause for a refill halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Delays in producing its first car – production was supposed to begin last October but the company fell behind schedule after deciding to use a different transmission – have fanned skepticism about whether Silicon Valley, home to computer and Internet companies, really can nurture a new automobile maker. Tesla wants to prove the doubters wrong.

“Some are very skeptical about people in Silicon Valley producing cars,” Mr. Siry admits. “And sure, building vehicles is something very hard.”

The automobile industry operates under strict government regulation, a stark contrast with the computer and software industries, where new products can be released with serious flaws and then later be fixed with relatively painless "upgrades".

“With things like the iPhone you can just go ahead without checking with anyone,” says Mr. Siry.

Tesla is also breaking the mold by planning to build only small batches of its sport car, treating it like a fine wine rather than a mass-produced laptop computer. The company plans to produce 600 cars this year – all purchased already, Mr. Siry says – and another 1,200 next year.

Small volumes are possible because of Tesla's six-figure price – a price likely to increase over time. As a result, the company can earn money while remaining a speciality producer.

“Break-even is between 1,000 and 2,000 cars a year,” Mr. Siry says, about the sports car. He says the company also plans a 4-door passenger sedan, perhaps as early as 2010. That car, he predicts, will cost between $50,000 and $70,000.

The car's high prices comes partly from its lithium-ion battery. Each one costs about $20,000, or about one-fifth of Tesla's price. Demand for lithium-ion batteries, widely used in computers, currently exceeds supply, which explains the high prices for them. The Tesla Roadster uses more than 6,000 individual lithium battery cells, a staggering number, more than a thousand times the number used in a laptop.

On a recent visit to Tesla, a couple of engineers chat quietly as they charge five prototype vehicles in the company's small assembly area. The sports cars glimmer in colorful shades of red, orange, green and blue. They resemble big Apple iPods, the difference being that these cars are ready to take you on a 125 mph ride down Highway One.

Tesla still faces issues with its new transmission, which runs only in a single gear (most gasoline-powered cars have four or five gears). The single gear permits fast acceleration.

“It is going to take us another three or four months to start production with the new transmission system." Mr. Siry says.

The cars going into production on Monday are built on the old transmission system with two gears. Tesla is going to offer owners of the first few dozen cars the chance to swap out the old transmission and get the new one.

“It is only going to impact 30 or 40 people and we did not want to wait any longer with the launch,” says Mr. Siry. “The decision to start production with an interim transmission was not a response to critics. It was a response to customers who said, ‘give us the damn car.’”

Send Emails from your mobile -- for free!

Mobile phones have plenty of smart functions, most which are unknown or simply irrelevant to the majority of users. The useful applications you really want -- like access to your email, contacts and calendar -- are difficult to set up and costly. So even though almost all mobile phones today could be used for reading email, very few people do that.In short, emailing from a mobile phone in America has so far been limited mainly to expensive smart phones -- until now. Funambol an Italian company based in Milan, intends to offer a new email service in the U.S. that is free and easy to use.

The system will work with SyncML, a software program that is pre-installed on most mobile phones from such manufacturers as Motorola, Nokia and SonyEricsson.
Mobile email for free? Is there a catch?Indeed there is. Funambol, which has an office in Redwood City, California, on the northern edge of Silicon Valley, wants users of its email system to watch small ads when they send and receive. The idea is that ad revenues will cover the service cost.
Funambol already has a customer base of one million people, mostly in Japan. The service is free and Funambol is now in talks with American telecom carriers on how much they will charge for transmitting the data between the company server and the mobile phone. Says Hal Steger, vice president in charge of marketing: “Operators can make the data free, and we hope that this at least will be the case with new operators that have nothing to lose.”
All a user must do is register his or her phone number at an Internet portal, after which a SMS with the configuration code is sent to the mobile phone.
The software is open source, which means it can be downloaded at the company website for further development.
“Forty thousand developers have already downloaded our software," says Mr. Steger, who showed off Funambol's email service at the OSiM conference on "mobile open source" in San Francisco on Wednesday.In an interview, Mr. Steger shows a world map provided by Google Analytics that indicates where downloads have gone -- mostly to India and China. These two countries are likely to generate the largest demand in future for mobile email. India alone has 225 million mobile phones, more than even in the U.S.
Mr. Steger says there have been two million downloads of the program. That suggests that the system is well tested.
Funambol's software works with Mcrosoft's Exchange Server, which is used by many companies for corporate email. In the near future, Mr. Steger says Funambol will also announce important business deals with the mobile phone company Nokia and the content provider AOL:“But it will take a couple of more years before the development really starts going," estimates Mr Steger.

Honeymoon with open software is over, says Nokia

There has been much buzz about open software used for operating systems in mobile phones, and the expected arrival of the Google Android during the second half of this year will add to the excitement.

But despite the excitement, sales of mobile phones using open software such as Linux fell last year.

Nokia, the global leader in mobile phones, continues to refuse to give up its own operating systems in favor of open source ones. In fresh evidence of Nokia's refusal to go open, a senior company official told a meeting of open-source engineers in San Francisco that proprietary systems still held sway at the Finnish company.“The honeymoon with open source is over," Ari Jaaksi (right in the picture), director of open source operations at Nokia, said in an interview.

In a speech earlier at the OSiM conference on Wednesday in San Francisco, Mr. Jaaksi told a suspicious audience that there would be "some nasty points" in his presentation about the relative merits of "open" and proprietary software.

Mr. Jaaksi's main point was that the quality of software based on open source is not high enough for the rigors of the mobile world. There are special problems with security and usability, he noted, counseling software developers to understand how makers of mobile phones relate to telecom companies. “Customers will not accept anything but the best”, he said. “They do not tolerate the same behaviour you expect from your PC.”

Nokia introduced a device called the "Internet Tablet" in the summer of 2005. The company is about to launch a third generation of the device, which operates on open-source Linux. There were glitches in the software and Mr. Jaaksi admits Nokia made a few mistakes that led to some “horror stories.”He said Nokia has to learn more about dealing with the developers in the open software community.

He thinks that the company will work more closely in the future with coders, hackers and developers.“One hundred percent open source is not our goal," Mr. Jaaksi said. "But if we have good open source" available to Nokia, then the company will use it, he said, because "it will not be economical for us to develop it ourselves.”

Nokia have been criticised for being overly secretive when dealing with people from the outside, and Jaaksi said that there are issues such as licensing that are difficult to solve. For instance, there is “a 5000 word agreement to understand” before you sign.

Other manufacturers, with Motorola in the lead, are much more active in open source and at the 3GSM conference in Barcelona recently sixteen new Linux operated models from different companies were introduced.

On Wednesday, Morgan Gillis, who is executive director of the Limo Foundation, an alliance of forty mobile phone manufacturers and application companies, projected a great future for open source on mobile phones. Limo is trying to replace proprietary software for mobile phones.

In San Francisco, Mr. Gillis showed market research that predicts Linux-operated mobile phones will number 300 million worldwide in five years.