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Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) doesn't dominate every market it enters. Rivals in freshly staked Big G territories aren't automatically dead meat, though they'd best keep a wary eye on the newcomer.
But sometimes, Google's tactics just happen to fit that new market like a glove, and there's really no room for old-school incumbents anymore. That's where TomTom and Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN ) come in. The latest update of Google's mobile maps app makes it perfectly clear that the old navigation giants must change radically -- or die.
Google Maps for Android devices will now route you around heavy traffic. Drawing data from Department of Transportation sensors, and using GPS data from Android phones to assess car landspeed velocity (African or European?) along major roads, Google's maps have outlined traffic congestion in colorful graphics for a while now. But now, the navigation app takes advantage of that information to help drivers avoid nasty hotspots.
The massive and fast-growing installed base of Android phones makes Google Maps a dangerous competitor to any on-the-go information gadget. It also ensures a heavy flow of self-sourced traffic data.
It's not that the GPS guys aren't trying. Garmin's latest and greatest nuvi 2460LMT, for example, proudly boasts free map and traffic updates for life. In the case of Garmin, its premium subscriptions tap into databases from Nokia's (NYSE: NOK ) Navteq maps service. Also competing in the space -- if you happen to own the right GPS model -- is XM Traffic from Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI ) . You'll certainly tap into the same official sources that Google uses (Department of Transportation sensors, etc.), but without the benefit of an army of data-gathering Androids to increase the effectiveness of monitoring traffic.
And those plans will cost you. XM NavTraffic on its own is $9.99 per month, or an extra $3.99 if you're an XM Radio subscriber. Most Garmin models still require an extra $50 to add premium traffic from Navteq.
Consumer-level GPS service has become a smartphone app, removing the need for a separate gadget. It's hard enough to beat "good enough but free" with high-priced premium alternatives, but it's even harder when the free stuff is at least as good as the premium version. Maybe even better.
Garmin has tried its hand at navigation-happy smartphones and failed miserably. Automotive and mobile sales are falling precipitously. It's a good thing the company is big in GPS devices for fitness, aviation, and marine applications, because the car-mounted market is moving to Mountain View.
Garmin will survive, but it's becoming a shadow of its former consumeristic self. The stock has lagged behind the S&P 500 over the last five years, and it would have lost you money if not for a generous dividend program. That's not changing anytime soon -- unless Garmin can reinvent itself.