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.

11 min read
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.

Let's talk about some of the gadgets you brought with you.
Chadha: (He picks up a device called the Navman iCN 750). This is an interesting system. In addition to the traditional mapping, navigation capability, they have added a digital camera with a location stamp. So if you see a building which you like, but you don't know the address or whatever, you can just take an image, and you store it, and it location-stamps it. Later on if you want to find out how to get to that building, you go to the picture, and say, "Take me there."

(He picks up a couple of gadgets from Magellan.) This one is $699 (the Magellan RoadMate 6000T). Most of these systems are in the $500 range, like TomTom is $599. This one, the (Magellan) 2000 series, is priced at $399. So, they've created a new price point.

In (the Magellan) 2200 series, they have combined driving maps with topographic maps. You know, traditionally people used to have handheld GPS for recreation, hiking and all that. Magellan has actually combined their recreational maps and your navigational maps in one. So, this becomes your navigational system whether you are in-car, or walking around.

This Nuvi--in addition to your navigation, you have a travel kit. You can download languages, travel guides, (along with its) MP3 player. This is a built-in capability.

You're thinking that this is the holiday season GPS takes off more than before?
Chadha: I think it's going to be a major holiday-season item, portable nav as a core platform, this year. Last year, if you look at the price points, traditional in-car systems were about $2,000. Last year, the portable nav systems were in the $600 to $1,000 range, so they were significantly lower-priced. This year, I think you're going to see $300 to $500 pricing, and I think they're going to become major promotional items at a number of retailers as a separate category.

What you're going to see this year is entry-level systems more aggressively priced, but at the same time, people are going to differentiate based on adding more capabilities. So Nuvi--new form factor, a lot more capabilities, in addition to navigation. This year also you will see the entry of a totally new category of systems. So, this one (the Mio C710 DigiWalker)--it's really a music player with built-in navigation capability. So if you look at the form factor, it's really what your MP3 player form factors are, but it has a full-fledged navigation capability. It has an MP3 player, it has a video player, it has a travel kit. So it's what I call a personal companion system.

I think people are underestimating the fundamental difference geosearch is going to make in a mobile environment.

And then the other new platforms which are entering the market this year--it's going to be the phones.

How widespread is GPS navigation in phones right now?
Chadha: Again, Europe is ahead of the U.S. in this category. In the U.S., Nextel has a number of phones where you can do navigation, you can do location--locate your children and all that. Sprint is, after their merger with Nextel, now also starting to offer that, and recently Verizon has launched their (version of LG's Chocolate phone). It's what we call a phone platform with navigation capability. It's not something you will use for your everyday navigation, but this is what you carry with you wherever you go.

What about location-based search?
Chadha: I think people are underestimating the fundamental difference geosearch is going to make in a mobile environment--the Google Earth, or Microsoft Virtual Earth, or the Amazon A9, the Yahoo. I think what you're going to see is all the searches in the mobile-phone platforms are going to be geosearching, because if I do a search on my PC today, I'm looking for a pizza--unless I go to a Google Local or something, it tells me pizza in China, or in India, right? In a mobile you are constrained by the data transmission and by the display. So most of the searches have to be more localized rather than global.

I think next year the phone platform is going to become one of the key drivers for location-based services, both in the U.S. and in Europe, and even in countries like China and India, where we are working with a number of operators for launching these services, and bringing together lots of this content on a standardized (platform). So we have defined an API, which all these content providers and application providers can write to test it against. Today one of the problems people have is, they have to do special porting to this phone, versus this phone, versus a Motorola phone, versus Siemens, a BenQ phone. So by putting the standardized API around this (location-based search) it makes it much easier for these companies to take advantage of all the hardware which is going to be available.

The other new category in this is going to be the specialized devices. So, there is a company in U.S. called Wherify, which is launching a phone platform, but it's a dedicated platform for security or for tracking children or elderly people. It has three programmed buttons, so if you give it to your child they can push 1, which is father; 2, which is mother; 3, 4, 5, which are their friends; and an emergency button, so if they need help they just push this button and the parent gets alerted that the child needs help. The other beauty of this is, as a parent, I can actually find out any time of the day wherever my child is because I can ping this device to know where it is.

What about privacy issues?
Chadha: Obviously we can't control the end product, but we work with lots of these content providers and the platform providers. So if you look at the Nextel phones, they give you three choices. E911--you have no choice because that's the mandate. But you can have: Nobody gets my location; buddies or the authorized people get my location; (or) broadcast my location. So, you decide what you want to do.

If you sign up (for) this (Wherify) device, then the parent actually decides the privacy levels. So typically ... only I can locate my child, nobody else can. Now the child does not have a control on this, the parent does. So I guess it's more useful for children who are maybe 6 to 12 years old, where the parent controls the privacy.

Do you see wireless technology as a possible rival to GPS, or as something that's compatible?
Chadha: From a Sirf strategy standpoint, we are doing two, three things. One is, of course, making sure that you have a GPS for any level of device you want, very high performance, you want very low cost, all price performance ranges. Also making sure that we can support all the global systems. Europe is coming out with the (satellite) system called Galileo, which would cover the whole world just like GPS. It's a totally separate navigation system, but it has interoperability with GPS. This system will be deployed over the next seven to eight years. So we are developing technologies to combine GPS and Galileo, so that whatever satellites are visible we can use them.

Second thing we are doing is, we are looking at--as people develop these technologies--what are the other functions which are relevant to the platforms? Bluetooth is one of the things lots of our customers are using, so the TomTom now has Bluetooth, and now the Garmin has Bluetooth, many of these devices have Bluetooth themselves. So we have combined that into a single chip.

In the phone space, we combine GPS with the wireless aiding system. So from the wireless network you can aid the GPS to improve the performance, because in E911 you want the GPS to work even indoors, wherever the 911 call comes from. Deep indoors you may be able to link to the satellite, but you may not be able to download data, so we can use the wireless network to provide us with the data.

So we have what we call the hybrid location capability, where we can combine GPS with any other what we call signal of opportunity, whether it's a Wi-Fi signal or a cell phone signal or in the future even a UWB (Ultrawideband) signal--any signal which is available, we can combine it with GPS. None of the other signals have the global footprints, so we don't look at it as GPS versus other. I think GPS and Galileo are going to be the only global-footprint location technologies, but they can be supplemented by a range of other localized location technology.