Navigating the future of GPS devices

The growing screen size and touch capabilities of smartphones, in combination with some great apps, are making them formidable rivals to standalone navigation devices.

Ross Rubin
Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, where he analyzes the adoption of consumer technology, and also publishes commentary at his blog, Techspressive.com. Previously, Ross was executive director and principal analyst at The NPD Group and vice president and chief research fellow at Jupiter Research.
Ross Rubin
3 min read

In the heyday of PDAs such as the Dell Axim and the Hewlett-Packard Jornada, companies such as TomTom and Navigon offered software that ran on other companies' hardware. The low installed base of PDAs prevented that solution from becoming a runaway success and gave way to integrated portable navigation devices, or PNDs, such as those from Garmin. PNDs sold in the millions, becoming hot gift items.

TomTom's iPhone app in use. TomTom

Now, though, the growing screen size and touch capabilities of smartphones are making them formidable rivals to standalone navigation devices. According to NPD Group's Mobile Phone Track, four out of five cell phones sold in the fourth quarter of 2009 had GPS capabilities, and half had screen sizes of 2.5 inches or larger.

In the past, phone-based navigation capabilities were used primarily for pedestrian navigation. Google, however, changed that game by introducing free turn-by-turn directions on the fast-selling Motorola Droid, along with plans to proliferate the feature to the many smartphones that use Google Maps.

Motorola even offers a car dock that places the Droid in navigation mode. And on the iPhone, where Google's turn-by-turn directions are not present, companies such as TomTom and Navigon have returned to their roots, selling apps that include turn-by-turn navigation.

Many have seen the Google giveaway as the death knell for standalone GPS devices, and some may see the free Nokia Ovi Maps and Navigation client in a similar light, but manufacturers still have no problem selling lots of entry-level GPS systems to those who would still rather avoid a recurring fee or data plan.

The Google Maps Navigation application will show you how to take a spin past Boston's Fenway Park. Google

Thanks in part to low household penetration that still leaves room for growth, PND sales grew 13 percent annually in December, far more than other portable electronics such as digital cameras or MP3 players. However, rapidly falling prices made for an 11 percent decline in revenue for the category, according to NPD's Retail Tracking Services.

PND makers have long been challenged in getting consumers to opt for more expensive models, with larger screens and Bluetooth being two of the more effective lures. In contrast, two-way connectivity enabling traffic avoidance has only incremental appeal and value, and has proven a hard sell because it puts the devices on the subscription playing field, where cell phones have the home team advantage.

Dash Navigation couldn't sell it, and Navigon couldn't afford to give it away; both left the hardware business. And as inherently connected devices, cell phones are poised to best PNDs in having the most up-to-date location information, and integrating with social networks and personal scheduling.

PNDs, then, are stuck at a pricing ceiling and, to some extent, a features ceiling. One way to pull the top down may lie in the better economic proposition of 4G networks such as WiMax and LTE.

These, combined with faster local networks such as Wi-Fi and ultrawideband, could pave the way for the PND morphing into a media server for the vehicle. Indeed, that's not far afield from what advanced in-dash navigation systems from Pioneer and Kenwood offer.

In any case, much as the iPod Touch transcended simple music playback, PNDs must move beyond their original purpose of simply providing directions to the unfamiliar or lost. The image of those glory days is rapidly shrinking in the rear-view mirror.