Wednesday's launch of Google Maps Navigation for the search giant's Android mobile platform caused the stock prices of personal-navigation device makers to spiral downward. Clearly, investors fear that Google's free mobile service, which delivers real-time turn-by-turn voice guidance and automatic routing, will hurt the long-term financial performance of rival hardware and software vendors.
Still, Google's announcement was hardly surprising given that real-time navigation was long a milestone on Google's mobile-device road map, noted Charles Golvin, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. The key question for navigation vendors and the wireless carriers, Golvin said, "is not 'Will Google eat into your navigation business?' but 'How will you extend navigation with additional value to compete with Google's navigation offering?'"
Viewing Android In A New Light
It's easy to see why investors are worried. With Google Maps Navigation, smartphones could automatically receive the most up-to-date maps and business listings from Google without users having to purchase map upgrades or update their devices, noted Google Maps software engineer Keith Ito. "And this data is continuously improving, thanks to users who report map issues and businesses who activate their listings with Google Local Business Center," Ito added.
Google Maps Navigation also lets mobile users conduct hands-free searches for destinations by simply speaking the names of the locations they wish to visit, and even receive live traffic information over the Internet. Or "simply enter the name of a business, a landmark or just about anything into the search box and Google will find it," Ito said.
All these features are currently available from other providers, but come at a price while Google's mobile app is free, Golvin noted. Still, the pace at which Google Maps Navigation will end up hurting competitors is partially under the control of wireless carriers and platform vendors, who are likely to view Android in an entirely new light.
"Since Google Maps Navigation is only available on the Android platform today -- and only on version 2.0 -- expanding the Android portfolio carries a new trade-off," Golvin said. "No carrier has yet chosen to release an Android phone that isn't also 'with Google,' but that is certainly an option."
Time To Focus
The good news for TomTom, Garmin and other personal-navigation vendors is that Android's share of the mobile-device market is currently small, which means they have plenty of time to focus on the value they offer beyond what Google does, Golvin advised. "That includes their deeper understanding of how consumers navigate in different regions, their better hardware and accessories that contribute to a better navigation experience than what's available on phones, and bringing their solutions to existing platforms like the iPhone," Golvin said.
But analysts warn that it's likely only a matter of time before Google ports its mobile navigation offering over to the iPhone and BlackBerry platforms. In light of this potential threat, TomTom will no doubt be reevaluating the marketing strategy behind its mobile navigation app for the iPhone, which currently costs $220 for the software and kit.
On the other hand, device vendors have several things going for them that Google can't match -- at least not yet. Among other things, Google's new offering does nothing to aid travelers in areas where mobile broadband connections are unavailable, and where dedicated navigation devices will continue to keep users on track.
Users of stand-alone devices from Garmin and TomTom also benefit from having access to huge amounts of real-time user data. Best of all, dedicated devices sport bigger displays that are easier to read at a glance.
"In my experience, PND owners are an incredibly loyal lot who couldn't imagine switching to a phone-based solution," Golvin said.