First Came iPhone’s Thunder, Now GPS Makers Ride The Lightning

If you can’t beat ’em, build an app. (With apologies to early Metallica for that headline.)



With the rise of GPS-enabled touchscreen phones like the iPhone, you’d think that the future for stand-alone GPS makers looks bleak. Except that these companies are being surprisingly agile, and are embracing smartphones to make the best GPS navigators ever.

As early as July 2009, with the iPhone only two years old and Android only recently making a dent in the smartphone scene, the New York Times ran an article questioning if consumers needed a stand-alone GPS unit as well as an A-GPS equipped smartphone like the iPhone, and noted that industry-leader Tomtom’s first quarter sales had slipped 29% versus the previous year. Now it’s 2011, the smartphone is increasingly ubiquitous, thanks to both Apple and Google, and now even tablet PCs are equipped with GPS units. So GPS makers are doomed, right? Not so fast.

Navigon was an early leader in releasing the MobileNavigator iPhone app (in a variety of packages for global travel) that leveraged all of its navigation device expertise in a paid-up iOS app that basically turned the iPhone into a high-end clone of a Navigon stand-alone GPS unit. The app appeared repeatedly in the top lists for downloads, and has gone through seven revisions–each adding more and more powerful features, including 3-D map shapes that replicate the view of the driver’s horizon and live traffic data for jam-avoidance. It’s worth remembering that in the age of single-unit GPS devices, to get these features you’d actually have to buy a new box.

Now it’s just had its eighth update, and Navigon’s added the highest-tech trick to the code yet, leveraging ideas that only emerged with smartphones with cameras: augmented reality. The new Reality Scanner feature is, Navigon says, a “navigation industry first augmented reality feature” that provides an “instant and effortless way of identifying destinations close-by.” It works like most AR systems do, with the user pointing the phone in “any direction from where they are” and seeing “points of interest icons appear directly onto a live camera view, indicating the exact position of the location.” The company imagines it being useful for pedestrians more than motorists (though it’d also be handy for finding a nearby restaurant if you pulled off the freeway on a long road-trip), presumably because of the dangerous distraction such a live-data feed could cause when driving.

But that’s also a demonstration of the strength of Navigon’s navigation offering–it’s imagining enticing iPhone users as pedestrians away from Google Maps or dedicated AR apps like Layar, because they know the Navigon brand and already trust it to get them to their driving destination. 

Meanwhile Tomtom, which also has an iPhone app, is busy upgrading its enterprise-level GPS stand-alone units with clever technology like the new Active Driver Feedback system–code that promotes safe driving by measuring a driver’s performance in terms of harsh braking, steering or acceleration. This “instant feedback” Tomtom thinks will boost safety and fuel efficiency, but it requires a “Pro”-level Tomtom device in the vehicle, and some features need a Tomtom Link device, and both systems ask for a subscription to the Webfleet service. It’s a decidedly old-fashioned way to try to boost sales of GPS units, centering on road users like truck drivers. And its worth noting that most of the same features could easily be replicated in a smartphone app that uses the phone’s gyros and accelerometers. But Tomtom’s pursuing it to improve its hardware products, and differentiate itself from competitors like Navigon.


Both companies have had their markets deformed beyond all recognition by the arrival of the iPhone and Android. But it’s tempting to see Navigon’s approach as the most future-facing because by constantly upgrading its smartphone app it’s creating a navigation system far cleverer than it could’ve achieved with stand-alone technology. Navigon’s also teasing it’s working on some “major additions” for the app, and notes “only those who have this latest version are eligible to take advantage of the benefits in the next version.” Obviously the company has big plans up its sleeve, and its income from its remaining stand-alone GPS business and the money it rakes in from iTunes (which is potentially at a higher profit margin than its GPS sales, because it only has to ship code rather than real physical items to retailers).

In short, claims of the death of the GPS maker have been much exaggerated, but it’s true to say the industry looks little like it did just two or three years ago. It’s possible that in the short term, thanks to the smartphone, it’s going to be better than anyone could hope.

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Image via Flickr user kimmo-quva.

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)