It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your children are? Hey, for that matter, do you know where you are?
Valid questions for millennia, the magic of GPS technology is turning these queries into anachronisms. Today, one button on your personal navigation device (PND) can tell you where pretty much anyone, or anything, is -- and how to get there. For the price of a few hundred dollars, a PND will set you free from the embarrassing helplessness of asking for directions, and the frustrations of reading a map as well as trying to refold it neatly.
What's more, satellite navigation is becoming easier for us to use as the mapping industry evolves. To learn what further miracles await us, I recently rang up the folks at GPS specialist Garmin
Back up a sec
OK, here's a bit of background on mapping technology. The industry consists of two basic parts: The people who make the maps and the people who make the PNDs. Or rather, that's the way things used to work.
In the past year, the industry has undergone a tectonic shift as the PND makers gobbled up their suppliers. First, European PND-maker TomTom bid to acquire its first-choice provider of mapping technology, Tele Atlas. Seeing the field of mapmakers about to be halved, Finland's Nokia
Two bids, and suddenly the world is out of independent mapmakers. TomTom and Nokia had snapped up the big names in the field, and Garmin seemed to be stranded.
But then Garmin proceeded to challenge TomTom's bid for Tele Atlas, forcing TomTom to overpay for its prize. It then turned on dime and inked a long-term supply agreement with NAVTEQ. Thus, Garmin ensured it would have maps aplenty to load onto its own PNDs for the rest of the decade and most of the next.
And of course, there's always the possibility that everything described above could fall apart at the seams. The European Commission, with its policy on competition -- no friend to monopolistic endeavors -- is reviewing both deals as we speak, and could nix either, or both, returning everyone to "Go" without anyone collecting $200.
But even if the European Union allows the deals to proceed, the mapping industry is evolving quickly enough that the mapmakers that were so highly prized last year may soon become obsolete. Discussing the future of GPS technology with Garmin, we covered all the basics, details of which I'll incorporate in future columns:
- Is it better to build GPS technology into a car or sell PNDs separately through big box stores like Best Buy
? (NYSE: BBY)
- How ease-of-use trumps commoditization of the product, as Garmin incorporates Nuance's
voice command technology into its PNDs, and strives to make products so intuitive that user manuals are unnecessary. (Nasdaq: NUAN)
- The competitive landscape, and how device "convergence" is making Nokia and Apple
into competitors to industry leaders Garmin and TomTom. (Nasdaq: AAPL)
Now that we're beyond the basics, let's get into what comes next. What ignited my attention in my talks with Garmin was the "wiki-zation" of mapmaking. According to Garmin, there's a little-noticed trend afoot in the GPS world -- users are making their own maps, and uploading and sharing them with fellow PND users.
Right now, this trend is in its infancy, and poses significant technological barriers to all but first adopters. Simply put, it's not easy to do, and there's little organization of these DIY maps going on.
Over time, Garmin suspects we will see someone, or someones, launch a sort of "Wikipedia of maps," organizing all the user-generated data in a central source for anyone with a PND to access and use. The trend will also accelerate as the process of creating and uploading maps becomes automated and effortless to the "mini-mapmaker."
Great. How do we invest in it?
Thinking out loud, at one point Garmin referred to this process as YouTube-ization -- a term that struck a chord with me. After all, YouTube has become the standard of quality for creating and organizating user-generated content. It's arguably easier to upload content to YouTube than it is to upload to Wikipedia.
Another advantage from an investor's point of view is that, unlike wikipedia, YouTube happens to have a publicly traded parent company: Google
Seeing the future is a tricky task. But I think I'm seeing the future of GPS.
What's new in innovation? The rest of our series has the lowdown on: