Navman fights for relevance with rapid map refresh - and reveals surprising NZ sales

I screwed up my nose when Navman announced its new MY450LMT ($379) sat nav.

Who needs a standalone GPS system in their car in this age when big-screen smartphones offer free apps like Google Maps, Nokia Maps and (yes, yes) Apple Maps, all with spoken, turn-by-turn instructions, plus basic traffic data? And then there’s TomTom, which is now offering both standalone devices and iPhone and Android apps (from $80).

Navman’s latest spin is monthly map updates, which it’s offering with the MY450LMT. It's billing the monthly update frequency as a world first.

The monthly "Rapid Map Refresh" - included in the price of the MY450LMT - is also offered as an optional $179 lifetime subscription on two step-down models, the MY400MT ($299) and the EZY 250LM ($229); both models also get free quarterly updates.

The government’s $12 billion roading spend-up, plus a series of new developments – and an attendant blitz of new streets and re-touting of old ones - are Navman’s friend in this department (see my pics dotted around around this story. All were taken on a Navman helicopter jaunt around Auckland yesterday).

ABOVE: A vehicle run by Wellington company Here (owned by Nokia), which travels the roads of NZ collecting images; not Street View-style footage but "reference video" for Navman and Nokia (its drivers pack Lumia Windows Phones). Navman wheeled it out to emphasise how much things change. Last year Here made changes to 2600 street names, 500 one-way streets, 1700 road directional changes, and 1700 turn restrictions (gee'd along by the give-way rule change), 

The “Rapid Refresh” monthly map updates aren’t included in the price of the MY450LMT; you have to pay $179 for a subscription (which covers the lifetime of the device). 

MY450LMT and MY400LMT both have 5-inch displays (big by satnav standards but no bigger than, for example, Samsung’s Galaxy  S4, which is probably the biggest selling smartphone here right now).

And both feature another new feature called landmark guidance to help you take a turn at the right time. Navman gives the example voice instruction, “In 200 meters turn left at the Shell Petrol Station into Smith Street.” Sounds like a step up in usefulness from the voice instructions offered by Google Maps et al. (But next time they give a demo they might want to bear in mind that Shell sold its NZ service station business to Infratil, which rebranded it "Z".)

You also get red light camera and speed camera alerts, so you can stop speeding as you near a camera (or, in a parallel fantasy universe, continue at your constant legal speed after being informed for your trivial general knowledge that you’re approaching a camera).

ABOVE: the giant Stonefields development in Mt Wellington. BELOW: Homes, schools and shops being built on the old Air Force base in Hobsonville, where West Auckland abuts the North Shore. Personally, I would rather pull my own arms off than drive through either development. But there's no denying there's a lot of major new housing projects in Auckland, and of course in Christchurch too. But is it enough to justify paid monthly updates over quarterly freebies? Unless you're a professional driver, it's no done deal. (Click any photo to zoom.)

ABOVE: The entrance to the Waterview Tunnel, part of NZ's largest transport project that will see 5km of new motorway in West Auckland, half of it underground. It's the main element of a $2 billion project to complete the Western Ring Route.

35,000 Navmans* sold in NZ last year
Are the extra features offered by a standalone satnav enough to tempt the smartphone crowd?

Quite a few of them, it seems.

I asked Navman how many units it sold in NZ last year. I was inquiring on auto-pilot, expecting the usual bland, meaningless “sales were great but we can’t release them for commercial reasons” flip off. But it turns out  Navman’s local managers (all based across the Tasman these days**) couldn’t wait to tell me the answer: around 100,000 for the personal navigation device as a whole, with Navman holding around 35% of the market. 

Being a FlyBuys reward option doesn’t hurt. Still, it’s much chipper sales than I’d expected.

The downside: in the smartphone age, Navman can no longer sell its top-of-the-line model for $700+. This has led to financial pain. Navman's publicly-listed rival TomTom (which concentrates on GPS products) has seen its shares fall from above $US60 in 2007, when the first iPhone was released, to just over $US4 today. (NZ-founded Navman is today owned by Taiwan's Mitac, and is too small to influence the fortunes of the multi-billion consumer electronics conglomerate much).

ABOVE: Approaching the CBD from the east. No new developments on show. I just wanted to include the footage (hit F5 to refresh if you don't see the video).

Why stick with standalone?
What's keeping a respectable minority in the standalone sat-nav camp?

I put this to Twitter followers who had been tracking my Bottom Gun progress around Auckland (with our helicopter at times tipped on an angle with the side door slid open, the better for a TV3 camera man to get better shots while hanging out 'Nam gunner style, I spent part large parts of the trip with my eyes shut).

The general consensus was that features weren’t the reason for sticking with a dedicated satnav system so much as:

1) Mobile data cap psychosis. It’s better to have a pre-installed map in your satnav (monthly updates can be via your home broadband) than to be sucking down cellular data on the go Google Maps or similar. Here, perception is probably running behind reality. A bit. Tech writer Bill Bennett tells me he drove from Auckland to Wellington with turn-by-turn navigation enabled and used 100MB (or a 10th of a gigabyte). The cheapest mobile plans come with around 500MB.

2). Most people don’t know how much smartphone navigation apps have improved over the 12 to 24 months. For example, the Google Maps iPhone app that debuted last year (after Google Maps was elbowed out of the iPhone’s preinstalled apps) now features turn-by-turn voice instructions. An all-comers offer crowd-sourced traffic info. And the simplicity is good next to the kitchen sink approach taken by standalone satnavs. I prefer the minimalist Google Maps or Apple Maps, and usually only switch to the TomTom app on my smartphone if they get confused over streets (which does happen; more so with Apple, which I won't re-litigate here).

3). Convenience. With satnav units selling from $120 (the cheapest in Navman’s latest lineup is $149), isn’t it easier to buy one and leave it in your car all the time? (And one benefit of satnavs not being as trendy in this smartphone age is they’re no longer thief magnets.) This one’s a bit wobbly, since many now have cradle kits for their phone in their car for hands-free calling.

4) Smarphones use Assisted GPS (A-GPS) that is, triangulating cellular signals to help gauge your position. But if you leave major urban areas or otherwise get into dodgy mobile coverage, smartphones are generally not so good for GPS alone.

5) There's also the perception that smartphones can be quite snoopy, and it can be problematic to turn on their privacy modes (you lose locaton-based services and - cough - the convenience of always being logged in to sites like Software companies like to collect a lot of data about you and your movements. And with GCSB Bill and associated controversy, some will be suspicious of the state as well. Many personal GPS systems, on the other hand, are passive receivers - although it's worth noting that higher-end models have GPRS (aka 2.5G) SIM cards for receiving real-time traffic and iincident data. And once a GPRS-enabled GPS system is tied to fleet management software, you're talking total Big Brother.

ABOVE: Set a diary note to update your GPS maps in 2029, when a second North Shore to central city harbour crossing is due to open, in the form of a tunnel (assuming the plan survives a generation of government changes).

ABOVE: Spaghetti junction on the edge of the CBD - scene of various new on-ramps, off-ramps and re-routing over the past few years - a good reason to update your GPS maps. It was the wrong time of day to show it's usual car-to-car cram, however. We flew over around 11.30am. (Click any image to zoom).

Navman faces a tough fight, squeezed between built-in GPS systems that are filtering ever further down the new-car food chain, and ubiquitous smartphones. One day, it will surely have to relent and, like TomTom, release iPhone and Android (and obviously it's already cooperating on resources to a degree with Windows Phone camp member Nokia; see Here vehicle pic above). But, for now, it’s making a surprisingly good fist of it of standalone satnav, and it's good to see competition between the different platforms spurring innovation.

The company will hope NZ’s roading budget stays fat for years to come, and that new urban developments unpredictable. Both seem fair bets.

* Navmen?

** A spokeswoman told NBR that Navman has 37 staff at its NZ office, focusing on R&D and software development. At the time of its sale to US company Brunswick in 2004, Navman had around 300 staff in Auckland. Both Brunswick and Taiwan company Mitac (which Navman was onsold to in 2007) have initiated several rounds of layoffs and offshoring. Most of the culling was complete by 2009, when Mitac scaled back the remaining local operation from 73 to 48 staff.

ABOVE: Looking over Takapuna to Rangitoto. I can't think of any GPS angle here. But pretty, innit?


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