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Android: The Future Of Consumer GPS – Part II

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.

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6 Responses to “Android: The Future Of Consumer GPS – Part II”

  1. 1 laci

    I’ve been reading your analysis along with the first part and i couldn’t agree more with you. I’m also a Garmin fanboy but lately i have to admit that the Android platform will be a tough nut for Garmin if they can’t adapt fast enough. Already the existing Android phones can do most of the things you can do with a 60Cx for example.

  2. 2 VanMan

    I also agree. As these companies lose their grip on the hand-held market, they will continue to cling to their sub-meter markets and charge even more exorbitant prices. The sub-meter markets, however, will also slowly follow suit as survey-grade accuracies are being consumed real-time. Gone should be the days of post-processing proprietary format files on the desktop and here should be the days of carrier-phase processing being handled by the receiver to stream real-time accurate location information via standard protocols.

    As far as your argument, IMHO our archaic battery technology stands as the main inhibitor for multi-use devices, such as phones, to penetrate the out-of-network backwoods. Advances in battery technology (search “MIT battery technology”) are frustratingly behind the curve and slow to be adopted. I also long for the day when two-way satellite communication becomes as inexpensive as current cellular technology and we are no longer tethered to radio towers.

    Great topic.

  3. 3 Leszek Pawlowicz

    The next-generation GPS satellites will be multi-frequency, and higher power; combined with more flexible satellite software, it should be possible to get sub-meter accuracy from consumer-grade models in a few years, maybe even without a WAAS signal. Not survey-grade, but pretty good.

    Battery life is a problem, but I can go to eBay today and buy two spare batteries for my phone and a charger for less than $10 shipped. And I’ve got a 4000 maH battery pack on order that should allow for two full charge cycles in the field. Not a perfect solution, but one I can live with for now.

  4. 4 sal cangeloso

    Loving the subject, and I agree with most of your points.

    Two things worth noting IMO:

    1) You say “going to be tough for [the big three] to adapt” to a new Android landscape, but who is going to offer viable competition? Just b/c the OS is out there doesn’t mean competitors will spring up or that existing companies are going start to offer enthusiast/pro level GPS equipment. Sure, you have increasingly usable GPS on phones, tablets, computers, etc, but nothing that competes with a serious handheld GPS device.

    Just look at the Android tablet market- who is going to be the key players? The big guys, like Toshiba, Motorola, Asus, etc (at least based on rumors).

    2) When talking about Android we need to keep in mind two different levels of Android use. The first is Android powering the device (think the Garminfone) the second is working within the Android framework. Absolutely nothing is stopping Garmin from creating an app that will work on Android phone. This will not necessarily make it a great GPS handheld but it will allow geo companies to use their mapping data and expertise on a huge number of product. Magellan, ESRI, and others have already started this with iPhone apps.

    btw- Looking forward to reading the new site.

  5. 5 VanMan

    I encounter more SiRF chips in the multi-use devices. The personal device manufacturers have finally caught on, integrating them into phones, cameras, pdas, etc. But I am always surprised at the growing number of gps manufacturers there are out there in the market right now. The GPSWorld 2010 Receiver Survey lists 73 gps manufacturers in the market today ( It feels almost as though there are some disincentives for blurring the lines of where gps is used. Maybe it is still technological hurdles, not sure, but it would be nice if somebody pushed a little harder. There’s got to be someone willing to compete/adapt.

    And here is the wireless commercial that describes how I feel about cell towers:

  6. 6 Leszek Pawlowicz

    – Don’t know who’ll pop up to challenge Garmin etc., but I think Android and ubiquitous GPS chipsets lower the barrier for entry into the consumer market. For professional models, the level of expertise currently required suggests that it’ll initially have to come from Trimble, Ashtech, etc.. The next generation of GPS satellites will offer stronger-power, multi-frequency signals that will make sub-meter accuracy achievable with relative inexpensive hardware that many could supply.

    – When Garmin was making Palm-compatible iQue units, none of that software ever crossed over into their standard consumer lines. I think they should offer their Android navigation software for sale, but I can just imagine the reaction of their current car GPS division to such an idea – it would likely cannibalize sales from their stand-alone car GPS units. In the long run, those are a dying product line, and they’d be smart to realize that. But in the short run, they’d take a big revenue hit if they released software that would run on any Android unit. They might also want to hold that back for Garmin-only hardware units as a differentiating factor. Might have worked for the Garminfone if it had had better hardware specs.

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