Satnavs under threat from Google maps

By SiliconIndia   |   Friday, 30 October 2009, 09:22 Hrs
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Bangalore: After enjoying popularity in gadget fans and travelling salesmen, the satnavs could be under threat from a new breed of mobile phones that will feature the sort of mapping technology that will be similar to the most expensive TomTom.

Google has recently announced that its new Android 2.0 operating system will support Google Maps Navigation, a new tool, which is based on its existing road maps platform that will provide turn-by-turn directions, automatic re-routing and 3D street-level views, reports Telegraph.

The threat posed by Google is very serious indeed, the share prices of leading satnav manufacturers such as TomTom and Garmin nosedived hearing the news. Garmin's share price dipped by 18 percent, TomTom's went down by 13 percent.

The Google Maps Navigation tool will have several areas of Google's expertise such as search and location based services, to deliver clear views of the best routes, complete with finest restaurants, costliest hotels and cheapest petrol stations along the way.

Live traffic information will be provided directly on an Android phone, helping the user to avoid jams. The users will be free from the annual hassle of the satnav map updates, as the latest, and most accurate maps will be sent to Android phones by Google over the mobile phone network.

The Street View, a real, street level photography that shows the roads, buildings and landmarks will also be a feature, enabling the users to pinpoint location in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and visualize the remainder of the route.

As Google is offering these features for free, the satnav players look worried, as this could make a big impact in their market share. For instance, Google Maps Navigation will drive down the cost of stand-alone satnav devices, and it may even remove the single purpose satnav.

There are few things which Google Maps Navigation and other similar mobile applications are sure to follow. The first is speed- when a user is driving or in busy town traffic, he needs to know exactly what lane he should be in, and where he needs to go next. This is where modern satnavs distinguishes themselves, with their advanced lane guidance, clear spoken instructions, and ability to quickly recalculate the routes if a wrong turn is being taken.

The mobile phones perform less in this respect. When tried navigating to deepest, darkest Essex using TomTom satnav and CoPilot Live installed on an iPhone, the satnav performed its job reliably and without any problem, the iPhone could not join it perfectly. The iPhone kept dropping the signal, and thus spent much of the time trying to work out where the user was, rather than where he should be going.

The iPhone thought the user was a few hundred meters further back along the route than he actually was, resulting in lots of missed turnings; and it didn't get back on the right track as quickly as the satnav did. This was not the fault of the software, as the CoPilot application was a delight to use, with a beautiful, simple user interface.

It's likely that similar problems will pain Google Maps Navigation. One needs to look at the size of a satnav, compared to the average mobile phone, to see how difficult it would be to fit all that global positioning kit in to the slim, touch-screen handsets that are popular with consumers.

Google will already be working to resolve this problem. One such solution could be "caching" maps to the device, rather than live streaming them to the handset as one drives. The devices such as the iPhone can already cache the entire online store inventory of Ocado, and with the speed at which technology and components are developing, it is not impossible to imagine that within a few years' time the core components of a satnav will be small enough to fit in to a phone, and the memory of the device will be enough to store thousands of miles.

It is likely that until such issues are ironed out, the genuine satnavs will enjoy a stay of execution. The only purpose of such devices is to get from one place to another as quickly and efficiently as possible, and at this, satnavs still knock the spots off mobile applications aiming to do the same job.

The converged devices are the future, and the phones that are growing in popularity are set to be the ultimate multitasking gadget, handling everything like social networking, email, playing music or taking photos, and guiding people around town, be it on foot or in the car.

Google Maps Navigation might prove to be a satnav killer in time, but don't throw out TomTom just yet.

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