World News: Convergence or confusion in the navigation device market?

World News:  Convergence or confusion in the navigation device market?

While fellow American Motorola is trying to get rid of its loss-making handset business, the up-and-coming navigation device vendor, Garmin, recently announced its entrance on the global mobile device scene.

Apparently undeterred by the ill fates of Motorola and Siemens who could not achieve sufficient economies-of-scale as top five players on a 1+ billion device market, Garmin may rather be eying Apple and Research-In-Motion for inspiration in its new venture.

But what does a seasoned GPS company have to put up against an iconic consumer brand or a workaholic’s best friend? The nüvifone neither introduces a groundbreaking user-interface nor defines a new product category. All it has to offer is access to Google – just like everyone else, and digital maps licensed from direct competitors.

A little more than a year ago, the tables were turned when Nokia sent shockwaves through the navigation industry by announcing a PND device. Since then, the Finnish handset vendor has kept up the momentum with the acquisition of NAVTEQ. However, the company is visibly absent from the navigation device sales charts, and is instead focusing its marketing efforts on selling GPS-enabled N95 smartphones.

In short, Nokia does not seem to think that the navigation device market is worth the effort as long as it can ship some one million handsets per day.

The move by Garmin could be seen as an acknowledgement of the view that the PND form factor is doomed and that all applications will run on smartphones in the future. Alternatively, the company is making a hedge to keep all development paths open, or simply wants to demonstrate that it will not let anyone enter its traditional turf without resistance.

Regardless of motivation, Garmin’s entrance to the handset market reflects the widespread uncertainty about the future direction for the navigation market.

Mobile phones sell in billions and increasingly have GPS, so everyone assumes they will attain supremacy. But as the crowd cries “converged device”, it could be worthwhile to bear in mind that smartphones and PNDs are fundamentally different things. One is designed for the pocket and the other is designed for the dashboard; easily forgotten facts with considerable implications.

The keypad input-mechanism for mobile phones is potentially lethal for a driver, and the convenient size of a dashboard display does not fit into the pocket of a pair of designer jeans. Smartphones can indeed give full access to the Internet in the palm of a hand, and we have yet barely discovered what that could mean in our daily lives. Still, the chances are high that you will switch over to your PC whenever possible, simply because it is more convenient to use. Why stick to tiny keypads and miniature screens when there are full-size keyboards and widescreen displays?

Similarly, car drivers are likely to choose the most convenient user-interface for accessing navigation applications in their car. Just because most things can be done with the smartphone does not necessarily mean it has to be that way. Quite possibly there are better ways to provide Internet access inside a car than by using a pocket-sized device.

Navigation device vendors are today’s leading experts on delivering a “PC-like” experience in cars. They are probably better off developing those skills, than being minor challengers in the ruthlessly competitive handset market.

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