GPS ready for its media closeup

In-car systems, sure. But Kanwar Chadha, co-founder of Sirf Technology, says navigation devices are making far broader inroads.

GPS devices aren't just for helping you find your way through the woods anymore. Nowadays, they may also carry a tune.

Not all of them, to be sure. But like its traveling companion, the cell phone, the satellite navigation gadget is becoming a jack of all trades. More and more, makers of GPS gear are outfitting their handheld devices with entertainment capabilities such as playing MP3 music files and video downloads, and educational offerings like foreign language phrase books.

One company at the center of all this convergence activity is Sirf Technology, a maker of widely used GPS chip technology. Founded in 1995, Sirf had a notable IPO two and a half years ago as the stock market began to warm up to technology companies again after the dot-com collapse.

Since then, GPS systems--once limited to military use--have only become more woven into the fabric of everyday life, taking up residence in the family car, mobile phones and even the occasional bicycle helmet.

Kanwar Chadha, a co-founder of Sirf and now its vice president of marketing, stopped by CNET News.com's Cambridge, Mass., office last week with a carry-on case full of palm-size gadgets, and shared his thoughts on how personal navigation technology is ready for its breakthrough moment.

What's going on in GPS these days?
Kanwar Chadha: Well, GPS is hitting mainstream consumers. You know, the last two, three years, we're seeing a significant penetration of GPS into the mainstream markets, especially driven by portable navigation devices. If you think about the history of navigation, you know, in-car navigation started in the early 1990s in Japan, and has never really taken off in the U.S., although some high-end cars have it. Japan and Europe have been the primary users of in-car navigation.

How big a presence do navigation systems have now?
Chadha: It's a big penetration. (For in-car systems, the) U.S. market is the smallest, Japan and Europe are now almost equal. For portable navigation, Europe is No. 1, and the U.S. is No. 2, and I would say, if you look at 15 to 16 million, probably about 30 percent of that is in the U.S., so it's about 4 to 5 million units.

When you're talking about portable navigation, it's not just, say, OnStar devices that are mounted in cars, but also a Garmin device people might carry separately?
Chadha: Portable navigation means it's not in-car. So, we don't include GM OnStar--that is what we call telematics, because it's really a response system rather than a navigation system. You can do navigation with that, but the primary purpose is roadside assistance, information about what's around you. So the navigation systems, we classify two categories: the in-car navigation systems, which come installed in the car dashboard, so those are systems from Alpine, Bosch and Becker--traditional OEM (original equipment manufacturer) suppliers into the cars.

The major players in portable navigation are actually not the traditional auto suppliers.

The portable nav systems are really aftermarket systems. These are the ones which users buy...at a dealer, but primarily at a consumer electronics channel. The major players in portable navigation are actually not the traditional auto suppliers. TomTom and Garmin dominate the branded market today, and Magellan is very popular in the U.S. Mio is quite popular in Asia, as well as in Europe, and just starting to ramp up with the U.S.

On the technical side, what happened when you went from SirfstarII to SirfstarIII (the company's second- and third-generation chip technology)?
Chadha: SirfstarII was our first entry targeted at in-car navigation systems, with some penetration to portable nav, because the portable nav market didn't really exist till about two, three years ago. So, the main idea there was that if you put a system in the car, where you have a good antenna and all that, you can solve the traditional urban-canyon problem, which most of these navigational systems have--they will work very well outdoors, but when you enter an urban area or under foliage, the GPS will not work very well.

But as SirfstarII got implemented into the portable navigational systems, we found that user expectation was that as soon as you switch on the system--it doesn't matter whether it's where they were last time, or they've moved from there--that you get instant fixes, and also in the dense urban areas like New York and all that, lots of these systems had problems in acquiring the satellite. If you had acquired the satellite and then drove into the cities, you didn't have a problem, but if you switched off the system, and then four or five hours later tried to start it again in a dense urban canyon, people were having problems.

There were two issues we found causing this problem. One was, in an urban area, lots of buildings are blocking the satellite, so your satellite visibility was very poor, and the second thing was in many cases the signal itself was there, but was very weak. The searching capability of a GPS receiver is measured by how many correlaters (that is, processing engines) you have, because you are trying to do a blank search and correlate to the signal coming from the satellite.

The problem in urban areas is the satellite signals are coming and going, so if you don't have enough correlators, you may never find a match. In SirfstarII, we had 2,000 correlators. In SirfstarIII, we have 200,000 correlators. So our ability to do parallel search increased exponentially, and that's why what you are finding in SirfstarIII is that in almost any kind of urban environment, even indoors, we can actually find satellite signals.

So if I go into midtown Manhattan where the buildings are tallest and flip on a portable navigation device, what are my chances of getting a signal?
Chadha: You'll get it. With a SirfstarIII system like the Garmin Nuvi or Garmin 550 series, or TomTom's 510 series, urban canyon is not a problem. Even indoors we can get those signals. The search range now is very, very wide.

How well-mapped is the world now for GPS systems?
Chadha: The U.S. is very well-mapped. You know, even smaller cities are mapped--maybe not to the same level of detail as the larger cities, but almost all of the U.S. is mapped. Europe is very heavily mapped--Western Europe, all the countries are pretty well-mapped. Eastern Europe is starting to get mapped. Japan is mapped down to a 3D level, you know, you even can see the heights of the buildings as you drive. Japan is probably the most heavily mapped country in the world. Asia is getting mapped. China is getting mapped now--there are about eight companies doing navigation-level mapping for China--and India is getting mapped. So it's getting there.

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