When Garmin (s GRMN) announced in the lead-up to the Mobile World Congress an ongoing deal with Asus to build its long-anticipated Nuvifone GPS phone line, you could practically hear the wincing. Within hours, the move was alternately being called an admission of failure (Garmin originally planned to build the phone itself) and a desperate ploy to ride the goodwill engendered by Asus’ EeePC netbook. Analysts projected that new phones with versatile GPS features would crush the Nuvi by the time the device was finally released. The naysayers are jumping the gun. A GPS-focused phone can be a viable device so long as it follows the golden rule of the mobile market: Do one thing really well.
Cases in point: The iPhone (s AAPL) is the best web device, the BlackBerry (RIMM) has the best business apps, and the G1 has the easiest access to Google (s GOOG) services. Even average phones have proven successful by way of one killer app, such as Danger’s fold-out keyboard Sidekick.
The arguments against the Nuvifone G60 (and the just-announced Nuvifone M20) are indeed valid. Instead of using the Android OS, the M20 will come with the middling Windows Mobile. They won’t have an open SDK, and their media apps won’t have the visual flourish of the iPhone. Geo-location in phones is also far from a new breakthrough. According to NPD, 55 percent of new handsets sold in the U.S. during the third quarter of 2008 had GPS, though the big companies are only now leveraging the feature (See: Google Location and Nokia’s partnership with Ovi). In addition, GPS rivals like TomTom are making GPS separate software for phones like the BlackBerry.
Still, many believe the do-it-all iPhone 3G has the most potential as a mobile GPS platform because it has the best web UI and receives the most attention from app developers. But the fact is that for now, the iPhone’s Maps application is considered a disappointment because it doesn’t offer real-time turn-by-turn directions, on-the-fly re-routing, or voice prompts and narration. And the latter is key if you want to drive safely. In addition, the iPhone’s Maps bird’s eye visuals are not as clear or visually dynamic as the 3-D maps in Garmin’s car navigators.
The iPhone’s problem with navigation is that they’re currently bound to their deal with Google to provide their maps. Google Maps is a great service but doesn’t work as well on a mobile because it lacks the real-time, on-the-streets, data gathering maturity of Navteq, a company dedicated to mapping data. Both Google and Microsoft have created individual maps businesses that have yet to transition to real-time navigation. And Apple can’t yet rely on independent developers to ‘fill-in the blanks’ of their Maps service. Why? Because the Google deal, combined with complicated SDK language, seems to forbid it. Currently, a map app “may not be designed or marketed for real time route guidance; automatic or autonomous control of vehicles…[or] emergency or life-saving purposes.”
This brings us to how the Nuvifones will stand out. As with everything else in computing, the software is the differentiator and Garmin’s navigation software has the reputation as the best in the business. This will surely follow in the Nuvifones. The G60’s camera will add geo-location to photos, its Ciao app will orient friends to their respective locations, and the “Where am I?” safety feature will frame your position within nearby emergency locations and create a personalized, real-time guide. It will also have weather, flight status and traffic info. And we haven’t even mentioned the potential use of their popular topography trails and coastal charts found in their rugged travel devices.
Some have said that Nokia’s ownership of Navteq, Garmin’s sole map data provider, will enable them to undercut Garmin’s business, but that’s not really the case. Garmin negotiated a long-term deal that extends deep into the 2010s preventing the Swedish-phone maker from doing so. And Navteq, after all, only provides the quality data – it’s the translation to usable navigation software that counts.
The Nuvifones will likely keep the focus on the maps with simple UIs, while offering plenty of extra features. The UI of the G60 already appears to pop out nicely with three oversized icons (for phone, GPS, and search), and the M20 has an uncluttered menu. Both have browser, email, and media features.
Of course, the closer the Nuvi comes to a complete GPS device, the faster it’ll kill other GPS-only car devices, which is for the better. Analysts recently noted that a lack of innovation has permeated the GPS car industry and that in the middle of this poor economy, people are more likely to buy a device with extra features. Indeed, Amazon said that Garmin’s GPS car navigators occupied four of the top 10 gadgets sold in 2008.
I think the relative success of the Nuvifones depends on setting a standard for best navigation location in phones. It will please people who want a good visual map and location system, while offering enough quality services found in other phones. It may not make the iPhone or the Android phones shake in their boots, but it will be enough to give Garmin space to breathe and keep building maps for those who need them.