Competing with free: Navman partners with Nokia to bring their GPS lineup into the cloud

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With more and more Australian’s trading in their dumbphones for smartphones, all-in-one devices that continue to replace entire product categories, it isn’t hard to assume that a dedicated GPS is irrelevant in 2013. If a smartphone, which is on you at all times, has a GPS inbuilt, surely all that’s needed is a free app and you’re ready to drive.

To convince non-believers otherwise, TechGeek and a number of other publications were invited along to a seaplane flight and a presentation from Navman and Nokia’s new map service, called Here, to argue that free apps just can’t compete with their software and hardware co-operation. And I’m inclined to believe they’re right.

Competing with free: Navman partners with Nokia to bring their GPS lineup into the cloud

The day started with a flight over Sydney via a Cessna Caravan seaplane, and while the cynical part of me assumed that Navman and Nokia were buttering us up, it really was mind-boggling to see the amount of change constantly occurring to Sydney’s transport infrastructure. As we flew over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and descended into the suburban sprawl, the complexity of mapping new structures, built upon already complex stretches of road, was bleedingly obvious. Australia continues to, through state and federal sources, fund tens of billions of dollars of transport infrastructure. And along with this, the changes continue to outdate plenty of GPS devices.

I’ve often found software like Apple Maps or even Google Maps to be far from confidence-inspiring in foreign areas, and, from what I’d seen, it’s no surprise. When you (directly) pay nothing for these services, what’s the incentive for these companies to improve their software? In the end, Google is selling to ad companies, while Apple is treating Maps like another hobby, a bullet point on the iPhone’s feature list, a change which puts form over function.

While a number of automated processes can occur to include new areas of road, Navman and Here told us that they were confident that they were the only group in Australia to have verified map data, rather than sourcing the maps from elsewhere. They told the group that their fleet of 10 vehicles, with Google Streetview-style cameras, regularly validate these new roads, taking photos of street-signs and analysing GPS data, to contribute to their already more feature-packed GPS software.

Competing with free: Navman partners with Nokia to bring their GPS lineup into the cloud

Monthly updates for the majority of their new products (occasionally a $100 optional extra) will deliver these map changes. And when I quizzed them on regional data, they also confirmed that these areas will be receiving attention, with plenty of employees from both companies focused on regional Australia, despite the debates that Wollongong isn’t regional. If only these people worked at Telstra so we could get some city-equivalent internet!

With a partnership with Nokia, it’s almost weird to think that these two companies, now companions, might not compete in the future. Nokia’s Brent Stafford, told me otherwise though, insisting that Nokia relies on partners, like Navman, to fund their elaborate methods of keeping maps up-to-date and reliable. It was another stab at other mobile apps, and another fair one in my opinion. As Stafford described, while Google sells ads to fund their mapping initiatives, Nokia relies on partner satisfaction to fund theirs. If they do a poor job, there’s more incentive to change. If Google does a bad job, they’ll only change if ad companies bite back. Apple is in the same league, continuing to push Apple Maps, despite its clear challenge in competing.

Navman’s new lineup, with confusing naming conventions, includes the MY450LMT, the top-of-the-line model with ‘Rapid Map Refresh’ included, as well as the MY400LMT and EZY250LM ‘sat navs’ with quarterly updates.

It’s a shame that these monthly updates aren’t standard with any Navman GPS, but the company does show that they understand the threat of the competition through this quick update cycle. Nokia was bold in comparing their data to Amazon and Google, saying that just as Amazon is the biggest retail cloud, and Google is the biggest search cloud, Here by Nokia is the biggest mapping cloud.

Both the MY450LMT and MY400LMT have 5.0” screens, as well as spoken alerts for things like speed cameras and also 2-hour fatigue alerts. There’s also a live-traffic update system, based on RTA data, and a few other bumps (like a better search function).

They’ve added a number of cool features too, like Landmark Guidance, which gives directions based on landmarks (e.g. turn into Hume Street at the Big Merino – or at least I hope it says that), or just something as specific as adding a Cafe shortcut to the home screen. While it might be a depressing sign for modern culture that a quick coffee is our top priority (just kidding), it’s a simple example of the company listening to customers. A Google Maps app can generally get you from A to B, but these extra features from Navman still will appeal to many. The security of something as theoretically simple as speed-camera alerts might just be worth the price too. And with a stable price structure for mobile data, it could also save a little chunk of data on your mobile plan.

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The high-end MY450LMT model

Competing with free: Navman partners with Nokia to bring their GPS lineup into the cloud

You get what you pay for.

Yet despite these improvements, updating a Navman GPS still requires connection to a computer, even though they could theoretically include a Wi-Fi antenna to update wirelessly (as suggested by journalist Charlie Brown at the Navman presentation). And despite an increase of Mac OS X users, 2013 is the first year where the software can work on the platform. As hard as Navman tries to compete with free alternatives, the manual process of updating the device could be its achilles heel. They’ve come a long way, and it is great to see the company stay with the times, something which so many companies fail to do (BlackBerry comes to mind).

The investment in local data really does help Navman’s case for a continued reliance on their products. The iPod only became redundant because of a no-compromise Smartphone music experience. And yet I’ve never really found any iPhone or Android navigation apps to be confidence-inspiring. In the end, or at least for now, you get what you pay for with a GPS. It’s still a critical time for the company, and despite continuing to sell a lot of units through retail, Navman has no time for complacency. But I’m also quite excited for them.

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