Wednesday interview: Michael Kornhauser of ALK on why satnav is going mobile

Interviews, Mobile phones, Satellite Navigation systems

Could the next killer app for mobile phones be satellite navigation? ALK certainly hopes so. The company has been selling its CoPilot Live application for PDAs and smartphones for some time now, but in the latter case it’s always been dependent on a separate GPS receiver, which connects to your phone using Bluetooth.

However, developments like GPS-enabled phones and HSDPA networks point to a bright future for mobile satnav, and other location-based services. ALK has certainly come a long way since the 1970s, when it was working with the US government computing routes from Earth to Mars.

"From the start, we’ve been providing consulting, services or applications that help people get from A to B," says managing director Michael Kornhauser. "Now it’s happening on mobiles."

"In the mid-1990s, we took it a step further by attacing a GPS receiver to a laptop computer," says Kornhauser. "At the time, the laptop was the only entity available that had the computing power and memory to do satellite navigation. But we always had a view to ultimately reduce that in size for mobile phones."

From the early days of its CoPilot product, ALK was working closely with Microsoft on the latter’s handheld platforms, initially WinCE and then Pocket PC. ALK was to launch the first mobile edition of CoPilot for the Cassiopeia PDA. From there, the company has developed its CoPilot Live product for smartphones, and according to Kornhauser is looking to extend that to more mass-market phones. He also says that CoPilot Live has been built with mobile in mind.

"A lot of navigation systems are either on-board, where all the data is stored on the system, or off-board, where you effectively dial up to a server," he says. "CoPilot Live is something we call hybrid-compliant, so it takes advantage of the tremendous computing power on these smartphones and the diving cost of smart memory, to do all the computing and map storage on-board, but goes off-board for value-added services and other elements of navigation."

How does this work? Well, in most cities, street-level map data doesn’t change that much, but information like traffic conditions, weather, speed camera placement is more dynamic, so more suited to being pulled down over-the-air. So how else does a product like CoPilot change between platforms? Is it essentially the same application on mobile as it is on a laptop?

"A lot of the guts are the same, and the product has similar functionality and overall look and feel," says Kornhauser. "But the UI is tweaked fairly significantly for each device. On a tablet, you have up to a 15-inch screen, so you can have a lot more information on there. But then on a Pocket PC, and even more so on a smartphone, it’s imoprtant that the information is simple to understand, concise, to the point and can be understood at a glance."

So who uses this stuff, and who picks the mobile over the tablet version and vice versa? According to Kornhauser, the laptop and tablet PC versions of CoPilot Live don’t sell that well in Europe, but are popular in the US with people who own camper-vans, as well as professional truckers – who may even go for the fully-fledged FleetCenter version (left). Meanwhile, smaller businesses tend to go for the PDA version, while the smartphone edition appeals more to regular punters.

"We’re seeing more and more devices with these capabilities," he says. "It’s not just enterprise users who have smartphones any more. Devices like the Nokia N73 and Sony Ericsson W950 are great examples. They’re powerful smartphones, yet they also have great cameraphones and video or music capabilities too."

Two big trends that could make mobile satnav more common in the next year are GPS in phones, and HSDPA networks. Nokia’s announcement of the N95 yesterday is sure to be the first of many GPS-enabled handsets, which removes the need to have a Bluetooth-connected GPS receiver to use applications like CoPilot Live.

"It’s an absolute killer for us," says Kornhauser. "Take a look at the satnav market to date. In Europe, the big push for PDA navigation came when it was first put into a bundle in 2004. Then when that petered off a little bit, the GPS receiver got put into the device itself, and there was another big uptake. It’s about having less things to buy, less things to power, and it’s cheaper, which naturally gets it out to more people. And we see the same happening in the smartphone market."

Meanwhile, handsets like the N95 are also likely to work on faster HSDPA networks. Kornhauser says it’s feasible for someone living in, say, Munich to have the surrounding 50 miles of data stored on their device, but when they travel somewhere else, they’ll be served the additional local data directly over the air. "You can do those kind of advancements if you can get five to six megabytes of data down to the handset in a reasonable time," he says.

So where do the mobile operators fit in, if at all? Will they launch their own navigation services, or partner with people like ALK, or just keep out of the market altogether? Kornhauser seems to think the second option is most likely, with operators charging customers a set fee per month for, say, traffic information which can be overlaid onto a phone’s mapping software. It does seem that there’s scope for more of what he calls "value-added services" with this kind of satnav technology.

"We’re taking it from something you just use when you’re lost or on holiday, to something you use every day in various different aspects of your life," he says. "So you might be using the speed camera information, or getting walking directions when you’re not in your car, or getting other location-based content, or route-based content as we would call it. From ALK’s perspective, it’s not about finding stuff around where you are, but around where you’re going. We know where you’re going, how we’re going to get you there, so we can serve various bits of relevant information along that way."

Stuart Dredge
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