WASHINGTON — Rapidly advancing technology in consumer electronics and software is bringing down the size and price of GPS devices and driving a convergence of navigation with other media and information services.
While this technology trend is keeping longtime suppliers of GPS devices busy meeting growing demand and developing new features, it also has fostered new competition from the more-traditional consumer electronics industry.
The GPS industry has long been dominated by such players as Magellan GPS of San Dimas, Calif.; Garmin International of Olathe, Kan.; and Trimble Navigation Ltd. of Sunnyvale, Calif. But now, as GPS technology has become more mainstream, other companies looking to get a piece of the action .
Sony Corp. of Tokyo, for example, recently released a GPS-equipped digital camera that allows individuals to add location i nformation to their digital photos,
according to an Aug. 1 press release from the consumer electronics giant . Companies such as Casio, meanwhile, have been releasing devices such as GPS-equipped watches, while GPS-equipped cellular phones are becoming increasingly common.
Magellan has two main answers to the new competition , according to Christian Bubenheim, general manager for Magellan’s consumer products business. The first , he said, is that Magellan’s products appeal to those who want a more sophisticated navigation device, rather than an entertainment device with limited GPS capabilities . Secondly, Magellan is partnering with other companies that are venturing into GPS-equipped products, including Ford Motor Company of Detroit .
PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(18.000,0,” “,)> Jessica Meyer, senior media relations specialist for Garmin, said product name recognition will keep her company strong in the face of increasing competition. She said customers who use Garmin products for commercial applications are inclined to stick with the company when they get into the market for consumer or recreational GPS devices.
The widespread adoption of GPS by the automobile industry has been huge for companies like Magellan and Garmin. According to Bubenheim, the number of automotive units sold has been tripling from year to year, and he expects that trend to continue.
As the automotive units become smaller and more sophisticated, they can take on a variety of software-driven functions , such as providing live traffic reports and listings of prices at local gas stations, Meyer said.
While such information has been available for a couple years on high-end navigation devices, Bubenheim said that it is now becoming a standard offering . Prices have dropped to the point where a $500 device, one of the cheaper ones offered by Magellan, now includes live traffic information, he said.
Meyer added that vehicle navigation devices have become a platform for Garmin to offer a variety of media-related products, including digital video and audio . But Bubenheim also said that Garmin, which emphasizes accuracy as its defining GPS product feature, has exercised restraint in adding media features that could distract drivers.
“The key for the driver should not be entertainment; it’s navigation and the ease of use in the car. We always try to balance that,” he said.
In the coming months, Garmin and Magellan will be introducing Bluetooth-compatible GPS devices for automobiles . Bluetooth technology allows small electronic devices such as cellular phones or hand-held computers to transfer data to other devices.
Customers with Bluetooth-enhanced GPS displays will be able see an incoming caller’s name on the screen and have a hands-free telephone conversation, Bubenheim said.
Next to vehicle navigation devices, outdoor recreation is the industry’s fastest growing market .
Fitness products are a strong segment for Garmin, according to Meyer. While GPS lets runners know where they’re going, Garmin includes additional software-enabled information that aids individuals in their workouts. “We can take into account calories burned, the elevation of what you’re traveling, heart rate — we can take all of that, and provide extremely precise and accurate measurements to improve people’s performance and workout goals,” she said.
Bubenheim said his company is now tailoring its recreational GPS devices to specific outdoor activities. “Instead of finding customers and saying, ‘Here’s a great outdoor device, and it’s rugged and easy to use,’ we now approach customers and ask whether they’re into mountain-biking or hiking,” Bubenheim said.