Latest Portable GPS Devices Empower Consumers

By Jeff Carpenter

If you are a consumer with a high disposable income and a love for the latest gadgets, you ought to be thrilled with the current state of the portable GPS industry. Smack in the middle of an innovation bandwagon, consumers have more options than ever when choosing a product to help guide them to their favorite destination.

Why is that news? Innovation is nothing new in the world of consumer electronics. True - but with the latest GPS-equipped navigation product releases, something more than the typical innovation is happening. We are at the early stages of a technological evolution that seeks to allow consumers to create their own personal location-based service (LBS) devices. LBS is the buzz-acronym of the year. What LBS eventually becomes will disappoint some and be lucrative for others. The verdict is not yet in. But I think that the LBS capabilities of the latest GPS devices could just be the catalyst that propels LBS from a buzzword to a need in the eyes of average consumers. Just look at where we were a few short years ago.

I remember my first experience with a personal navigation device (PND). It was a summer vacation in the Tampa area and I had reserved a Hertz rental car. Hertz was busy rolling out their new "Neverlost" solution in their fleet. I didn’t know what it was, but Hertz wanted me to find out. They offered me a car with Neverlost installed for an additional $3/day. An electrical engineer never turns down a chance to play with a new gadget, so I accepted.

What an empowering experience! Need a grocery store? Need to find a place to eat? Done. Need gas? Or an ATM machine? Done. And "she" (in a few short days, we’d personified this little piece of electronics) even talked to us on the way, in that somewhat annoying computer voice (circa six years ago) that would make current device owners cringe!

I returned from Tampa and immediately began scouring the Internet, desperately trying to find out how I could own one of these devices. My dream was realized a few months later when Garmin hit the market with their StreetPilot III - a huge (by today’s standards) brick-sized portable navigation solution that I just had to have. And thus began the exponential growth of the portable consumer GPS market.

LBS wasn’t even a buzzword at that time. But those earlier portable navigation devices provided consumers with their first taste of LBS, whether the industry called it that or not. In an unfamiliar place, consumers could find "places of interest" (POI) based on their current location.

Those POIs were aggregated from a variety of sources and packaged with the mapping data provided by companies such as NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas. What they gave us is what we got. And we were thrilled with that. With the exception of the ability to define a couple hundred personal waypoints, consumers were at the mercy of data provided by the content providers.

NAVTEQ, Tele Atlas and others do a fantastic job developing their databases. Their data end up in the GPS devices made by most major manufacturers. But as with most products, there is a development cycle. At its most aggressive, the data ultimately in the hands of consumers are at least six months old - more likely nine to 12 months, or more. Are consumers satisfied with that? We have been, sure, because we had no choice. But as GPS devices move to the mainstream consumer, I predict that tolerance will lessen.

Let’s think about the mainstream PND consumer for a minute: technically savvy, travels a lot, young, high disposable income, and likely living in some of the newer areas of a city near you. As a PND manufacturer, when your target consumer lives, works and plays in newer areas of town, there is a potential problem. Can your data suppliers keep up with the growth of suburban construction and urban renewal, such that you can satisfy your target consumer’s expectations for accurate, robust POI data?

In addition, these same consumers, once satisfied with the mainstays - McDonalds and Target, are now interested in the boutique - Starbucks, Pier 1, Buffalo Wild Wings and Joe’s Crab Shack. As an example, my wonderful Garmin StreetPilot 2730 shows one Starbucks in the Des Moines metro area. In reality, there are 16. My PND doesn’t even know what Buffalo Wild Wings is, though in many suburbs it is the "place to be" after work. That isn’t a slap at NAVTEQ - it is simply the reality of the speed of growth and trend changes around the country. This speed of growth simply outpaces the length of time it takes to develop mapping data in their current form. If Garmin and other device manufactures can deliver a solution that shows me 16 Starbucks instead of one, they’ll have a happy consumer.

How do you deliver the POIs that your consumer wants, in the timely manner your consumer expects? The answer: Let the consumer play a part in the POI development. With that realization came the dawn of a personalized GPS-based LBS solution of sorts.

The latest products by Garmin, Magellan, TomTom, CoPilot and others now give consumers the ability to augment the built-in POI data with their own, consumer provided content. Now consumers can create their own personalized navigation solution with the content they demand. No longer does a consumer have to wait (and hope) that the next NAVTEQ or Tele Atlas update will address their needs. Consumers can simply do it themselves. Well - okay, maybe not so simply …

While the method differs drastically by brand, the premise is the same. Consumers can create a special file (typically a specially formatted text file) that contains records. Each record represents one POI. Each POI is defined by, at a minimum, the latitude, longitude and a description. Upon importing the file to the PND, the entered description is shown on the map at the entered latitude and longitude. In nearly all cases, the software implementation of the custom POI feature also allows consumers to search for these points by location and provides for auto-routing to the points.

Another implementation is available on the newest PND devices on the market - proximity alerts. A proximity alert file differs from a custom POI file in one way. Rather than the consumer initiating a search of the closest location of a business (the nearest Starbucks, for example), the PND automatically notifies the consumer as he or she approaches a proximity alert location. The primary intent of this feature, to date, has been automatic notification of red light intersection cameras and speed zones (such as school zones). The inclusion of this feature in PND devices is what allowed us to get our company off the ground with the development of the first red light intersection camera database in the US.

Even current, first generation implementations of the custom POI features are robust on most manufacturers’ devices. My StreetPilot 2730 contains over 42,000 custom POIs, contained in over 25 different files. The problem? To generate that many POIs, it took the formation of our company and thousands of hours of labor - a task that average GPS consumers can’t take on themselves.

While these latest PND products are a good first step, we are far from the ideal personal solution. Putting consumers in charge of their own data is a profound first step. It is easy for consumers to dream up all sorts of custom files they want to create. And they might even decide to dedicate the time it takes to type in all the location names and addresses. But one obstacle remains that is currently difficult to overcome: geocoding. Geocoding, the process of converting addresses to latitude/longitude, is far from a mainstream concept. And it will likely be several years before mainstream tools are available for consumers to easily geocode large quantities of personal data in a user friendly way. Yahoo, Google and others included geocoding in their mapping application programming interfaces (APIs), and that is a good first step. However, there is much work to be done.

Until that day, companies such as ours will provide consumers with the content they want, when they want it. Let’s just hope that NAVTEQ has a street defined for that new Starbucks location that just opened in your neighborhood!

Yes, there is a long way to go to bring personal navigation to the more mainstream consumer, but this first generation implementation sure is a giant leap from where we were just a year ago. It is a great time to consider a portable GPS device.

Published Friday, August 25th, 2006

Written by Jeff Carpenter

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