It is certainly no secret that when it comes to driving directions, we are just a few creases short of a perfectly folded road map. If there is the slightest possibility that we will take the wrong road, miss a critical turn, or zip right by an exit ramp on a deserted and dark highway then there is absolutely no doubt that it will happen. Our misguided wanderlust has mad for some interesting side trips and excursions -- deviations we prefer to call "taking the scenic route", although our friends and associates have other more colorful terms to describe these off-the-beaten-path travels.
The good news is there are a number of very good and reliable GPS (geo-positioning satellite) navigation tools available that can easily plug into your Pocket PC or Palm-based handheld computer to provide useful guidance information to sales and field force workers, and others who spend a great deal of time navigating U.S. roads. The bad news, however, is that most of the systems on the market are for the most part reactive, rather than proactive, meaning they are usually designed to tell you what you have done wrong rather than alert you to what may be coming down the road.
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This can be an annoyance and minor delay in most cases, but can be a critical error if you are driving down a dark road towards what should be a bridge or cut-off that no longer exists. If you think this is a small and infrequent problem, then you have never driven through Boston, where the streets and routes change so often that the local paper devotes whole pages to re-routes and street closures each week.
One of the earliest and most popular GPS guidance services, On-Star, is also very people-dependent. That is, if you need directions or are in trouble, then at the push of a button you can talk to a live agent and receive assistance or directions. However, putting people in the mix often results in a higher user cost for the system. And, let's face it; many people would hesitate to use the system too often -- thinking, perhaps, that somewhere there is a huge tote board that tracks and highlights the dumbest and most addled people in the world for all to see. We're proud that we are directionally challenged, but certainly don't want to go public with that fact.
There is a lot to be said about having on-the-fly route information when you are confronted with a flashing detour sign on a lonely road in a strange city. However, in order to survive and excel in this market, TomTom and others have to go well beyond mapping by integrating other applications.
Last week, yet another GPS company entered the U.S. market with a device that makes use of some of the latest and slickest developments, and is designed to be used with Pocket PC devices. Called the TomTom Navigator, the system offers "door-to-door" navigation technology that is consists of a GPS receiver, which plugs into your handheld or communicates with it via Bluetooth technology, and mapping information provided by Tele Atlas, a reputable worldwide provider of digital map databases.
Although we have not yet had a chance to take the system for a spin in the surreal world of city traffic, it did seem very comfortable and friendly when demonstrated a few weeks ago in the confines of a Boston restaurant. Not the most perfect trail setting, we agree, although we could have used it to find the restrooms in the hallway catacombs of this particular hotel.
First, a bit about the company: While the name "TomTom" may sound a second cousin to "Tintin", it has absolutely nothing to do with the popular comic trip that was created in France back in 1929. Rather, TomTom is the consumer brand for smart phone and handheld products created by TomTom BV (and the trademark of Palmtop BV), said to be one of Europe's largest mobile solutions developers. The company was founded in the Netherlands in 1991 (with headquarters in Amsterdam and a division in the U.K.), and is run by former executives who cut their mobile teeth at such companies as Psion and Philips New Media Systems. The U.S. division is based in Concord, MA -- which has revolutionary roots that stem back to England and Europe.
TomTom has managed to build a community of more than 250,000 registered users of its mobile software products in Europe, and launched the TomTom Navigator there in 2002. The company hopes to find an easy market here in the U.S. with its product and what is apparently a nation of people who apparently would much rather go miles out of their way rather than stop and ask directions. TomTom is initially targeting consumers with this product, but has not ruled out the business community and the increasing number of mobile workers within the U.S.
The TomTom Navigator product is certainly "cutting edge" as far as the technology goes, although there is really nothing dramatically different that sets it apart from most other handheld computer-based GPS system presently on the market. One that instantly comes to mind is the TeleType GPS WorldNavigator, which was most recently used by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to track the lead vehicle during the Boston Marathon. The TeleType GPS technology is also being used by the U.S. Coast Guard to keep tabs on water-based traffic as part of Homeland Security efforts.
Like most other systems, the TomTom product offers voice-guided instructions, 2D or 3D map presentation views, point of interest (POI) views, and integration with popular personal information management (PIM) programs (TomTom offers seamless integration with Microsoft's Outlook). The system also has a very intuitive user interface and does seem to do a very solid job of tracking your progress and quickly getting you from Point A to Point B. The mapping information, provided by TeleAtlas, is also updated quite frequently and can alert you to sudden detours in the road and can map out alternative routes when traffic is a bear (although we still have our doubts about its capabilities as a routing solution for Boston's traffic puzzle).
But, are all of these capabilities enough to float and guide the TomTom boat in a GPS consumer market that is crowded with devices and solutions that promise to steer you in the right direction? Perhaps, but we have our doubts since many consumers will be taking a very skeptical approach and look for the strong differentiator between these devices. Most can provide adequate directions, and are a definite improvement over the pre-trip mapping printouts provided by MapQuest and the American Automobile Association.
There is a lot to be said about having on-the-fly route information when you are confronted with a flashing detour sign on a lonely road in a strange city. However, in order to survive and excel in this market, as well as establish inroads into the business transportation and other corporate markets, TomTom and others have to go well beyond mapping by integrating other applications.
TeleType GPS, for example, adds a vehicle tracking system to its GPS technology that can be used by transportation companies to keep tabs on their fleet of trucks and cars. We also know of some tech-savvy marketing companies that use GPS systems to sell products via such things as mobile scavenger hunts and targeted messaging campaigns.
There is no question that GPS-based mobile devices are interesting and useful and fun to play around with. This is why most automobile manufacturers have already started to integrate these systems directly into automobiles, and why most every car will have some kind of on-board GPS navigation system within the next two years (given the 2-3 year cycle of development in the auto industry). The real benefit of a mobile system is how well the GPS technology integrates into the needs of your everyday life. If you are a consumer, it might be its ability to find a particular type of coffee drink in a new city (which means having close integration with restaurant information); while a business user might value travel data that directly impacts schedules and appointments, and perhaps alerts clients via email or messaging that he may be running a little late.
Basically, it all comes down to content and content integration, and not just telling you where you are at the moment and how long it will be before you get where you are going.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to www.shorelineresearch.com.