Interview: Navman's Colin Holloway on the future for GPS satnav devices

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navman_n60i-interview.jpgOne of the themes at this year’s 3GSM show in Barcelona was mobile navigation, buoyed by the fact that GPS is making its way into mobile phones, along with the mapping and applications to make use of it. Naturally, every company in this area reckons mobile navigation’s going to be huge.

So where does this leave traditional Portable Navigation Devices (PNDs) of the sort made by Garmin, TomTom and Navman? I talked to Colin Holloway from Navman to find out, and to see what the next big developments in this area are likely to be.

What’s driving the satnav market at the moment?

Well, to give some perspective, there are 93 brands in this market across Europe, and 450-500 products, so it’s furiously competitive. And the top three – Garmin, TomTom and us – hold about 85% of that market, so it’s not a great place to be for the other 90 companies. But overall, there’s significant growth. Canalys is predicting 18 million sales this year, compared to 12 million last year, which is why so many people are coming into the market.

navpix.jpgFeatures? It’s difficult to differentiate, as the products are fairly standard. We’ve all got SiRFstar III and four-inch screens, etc. What’s been good for us has been NavPix, where we have a built-in camera in the devices that lets you take a photo of something, then it embeds the latitude and longitude in the metadata of the picure, and you can just touch the pic to navigate straight back to that location.

It allowed us to set up a website, NavPix.net, which is a community site for NavPix images, so people can upload and share their photos, and download other people’s. It’s been up for about eight months, and we have over 10,000 images on the site now, ranging from the Eiffel Tower and Ayers Rock to little bars in Brussels and cafes in London. That’s where the appeal is – people’s recommendations of niche stuff.

It seems satnav has crossed over some kind of line, from gadgety early adopters to more mainstream drivers.

Yes, definitely. Overall, if we as an industry are going to sell 18 million units to 250 million people in Europe, we’re not far off 10% penetration. This product is selling more than DVD players, so it’s very popular. It’s reached that Eureka moment, where people get in the car, turn it on, and get a nice experience.

Mapping and interfaces have got so much better in the last 2-3 years, with 3D mapping coming in. Also features like safety cameras and traffic are starting to come in. Live information is essential, rather than the traditional having data in the device that immediately goes out of date.

We’ve got a product called Travel Assist S60 Edition which works for Symbian phones, where it accesses a server so the data can be dynamic.

travelassist.jpgIs mobile a threat to your core business though, if people start navigating with their phones rather than with standalone PNDs?

Well, if you look at Canalys’ data, they predict that in two years PNDs will still be 80% of the market. I do think the smartphone side will take off, as you’ll probably find people like Vodafone and O2 giving away GPS with their devices.

That said, there’s no question that things need to be fit-for-purpose. I’ve used lots of smartphone solutions for GPS, and while it’s great having an all-in-one device, there’s the odd occasion where you really wish you had a dedicated device. Say you’ve got a GPS signal coming into your smartphone, and at a crucial turning your mate rings, and you’re left wondering whether to turn left or right!

I come from Palm, which was the classic case of a company constantly converging devices. We used to make smartphones with MP3 players, video players, GPS, email… everything built in. And while in some ways that’s great, to take music as an example, a smartphone might have 3GB of space for music, but people want 40GB these days.

What I think you’ll find in our market, is people will have GPS on one device, like a smartphone, so they can go into London on the train, flick the GPS on and navigate to wherever they’re going on foot. But when you’re in the car, you’ll want a bigger more fit-for-purpose device, with a larger screen and speaker.

If it’s hard to differentiate between different PNDs now, how do you see them improving in the future?

The first thing is design. Look at what’s happened with mobile phones like the LG Chocolate and Motorola RAZR. Design is very important in the sales for these products, and you’ve seen that in the evolution of our product too, with slimmed-down devices like our N40 and N60.

What you really want is for people to take these things and stick them in their pockets when leaving their car, firstly so they can navigate in pedestrian mode, and secondly for security reasons.

In terms of features, it probably comes down to more connected information, with things like safety-camera downloads, dynamic POIs and so on. I don’t know if there’s a great deal more that can be done on the technology side.

navman_f20-interview.jpgIs price a big deal in persuading people which PND to buy, or are other features coming into it, like entertainment?

Price is a huge influence at the moment. If you look at the sub-£200 category, that’s about 40% of the market. Entry-level products like the Navman F20 and the TomTom One have really captured the consumer.

What doesn’t drive the market is things like MP3 though. Every car in the world has a car stereo, so why on earth do you want MP3 built into your GPS system?! If you look at trends in the MP3 market, there’s no growth in that market. There’s always a danger that people will stick a feature in a product just because they can.

Stuart Dredge