After yesterday’s magnum opus about how Android will transform the consumer GPS industry, today’s shorter post is a few random thoughts on how the big three handheld GPS makers might be affected by Android, and how they might respond. Personally, I think it’s going to be tough for them to adapt. Up until recently, handheld GPS units have been a fairly limited specialty market, allowing manufacturers to control interfaces and map data, and charge exorbitant prices due to limited competition. In most consumer electronics fields, prices drop even as capabilities increase; that really hasn’t been the case for handheld GPS. Android has the capability to turn GPS into a commodity market, meaning less control and more competition, leading to lower prices. And this is an environment that the old-school GPS vendors may have trouble with.
Magellan: Magellan is still struggling to overcome the disastrous premiere of their Triton line in 2008: decent hardware with capabilities unique at the time (raster imagery, 3-axis compass) sabotaged by horribly buggy software. Most of these problems got fixed, but too late to make a difference. Magellan was acquired late in 2008 by MiTAC (parent company of Mio, and they’ve just recently announced a new series of Explorist models, due out this fall. For standard GPS models, the specs on these look pretty good, and the prices are very competitive. But in the long run, I don’t see how they can compete with more-capable Android models that are likely to sell in the same price range or even lower. Putting someone else’s Android unit into a Magellan body with a better antenna and waterproof/field-rugged design might be a better way to go. They already have some experience using that approach with their new case for the iPhone, which enhances the iPhone’s GPS abilities while offering better protection against the elements; they just have to do it more cheaply.
DeLorme: DeLorme has moved into second place for handheld GPS units with their PN series, the first consumer models with raster/aerial imagery, and the first models with an affordable subscription plan for this imagery. They’ve also come out with a new model recently, the PN-60, with an upgraded interface and the ability to interface with SPOT communicators for satellite text messaging. But $400 for a GPS with a 2.2” display? No touchscreen? No apps? Their $250 xMap software lets you upload GIS data (raster and vector) to their PN models, but you can already put raster imagery on Android models, and GIS vector data can’t be too far behind. I don’t see this proprietary hardware line as having much of a future, and they don’t have much experience with alternative hardware.
Garmin: Garmin seems to develop an OS for their GPS units, and then use it as long as they can. The OS developed for their eMap model in 1999 was adapted and upgraded for most of their handheld models through 2006, culminating in the classic 60/76Cx series. These were probably the best-selling handheld consumer GPS series of all time, and four years later are still among their most popular units. They’re only 2.5 years into their next-gen GPS OS, the one that powers the Colorado/Oregon/Dakota/62/78 series, and they’ve certainly released a ton of variant models in these lines. The question is whether they can move past their own proprietary hardware and software designs and move quickly to an Android platform, using their strong GPS expertise to bring additional features that will differentiate their models from the rest of the market.
I’d like to think so – I’ve been a Garmin fanboy for 10 years now, and even now that I own a Droid X, you’ll have to pry my 60Cx out of my cold dead hands. But their recent history isn’t encouraging. Their first attempt to move Garmin technology to a cellphone platform, the nuvifone, was universally despised by reviewers. Their second effort, the Garminfone, was based on the Android platform, and received much more favorable reviews; the car navigation software of the Garminfone is generally considered to be the best Android car navigation system so far. If the phone had come out in the latter half of 2009 as originally scheduled, it could have been a huge success. But instead, it was first released in June 2010, and was crippled by:
- Older software; it ran Android 1.6 when every other phone being released at the same time ran Android 2.1
- A custom interface that makes it very difficult to upgrade to more recent Android versions
- Slow processor
- 3 MP camera
- A screen pixel count 1/4 of its similarly-priced competitors, and a smaller screen
- Garmin car navigation software on competing models that, while not as good, was free
- Lousy battery life
- No headphone jack
In short, simply not competitive with other Android phones. A month-and-a-half after being introduced for $199.99, it was already discounted by $70, and was part of a “buy one, get one free” package from T-Mobile. Even with that, it’s only sold about 20,000 units, which Garmin themselves acknowledged as a disappoint performance in their latest quarterly report..
If Garmin is going to survive in the consumer market, they’re going to have to move faster than that in developing products. And they’re going to have to give up control of the overall interface in favor of Android’s standard, putting their interface into just their applications. And they need to leverage their GPS engineering capabilities and map data into advantages that make their units stand out. If they don’t, they’re going to have a tough time surviving in this new market.