Strategic Dilemma: Garmin and TomTom Will Fail If GPS Devices Pretend To Be Smartphones

Last Updated Apr 28, 2010 6:24 AM EDT

GPS manufacturers are caught between a rock and a hard place: The rise of GPS-enabled handsets like Apple's iPhone and Android-powered smartphones has reduced demand for stand-alone GPS devices, but it's not clear what features could be added to make GPS devices more versatile. Nevertheless, Garmin, TomTom and other GPS manufacturers are charging down the multi-function path, with the result that they are creeping dangerously close to smartphone territory -- and that's not a good place to be.

Here's Time's Techland on the new Garmin device (shown above):

Garmin recently announced its Nuvi 3790T GPS system at a price of $450. You'd be forgiven for mistaking it for a smartphone, though, as the 3700 series measures in at just nine millimeters (0.35 inches) thick, about the same as a #2 pencil. Add to that a 4.3-inch 800x480-resolution multitouch display, advanced navigation features, and a weight of just four ounces, and the 3700 series is what Garmin's Nuviphone should have been.

Alas, this is just an expensive, attractive GPS unit. The battery only lasts up to four hours and there's no audio functionality aside from being able to act as a Bluetooth speakerphone.

And Engadget on today's TomTom Go Live 1000 announcement:

Achieved using a custom-built Broadcom GPS module, that capability is backed up by a 500MHz ARM11 CPU (yawn), 4GB of storage, 128MB of RAM, a new WebKit-based UI, and 12 months of free TomTom Live services. Beginning in June, this suite of services will be rolled out to 33 countries across Europe, featuring local information about petrol prices, services and weather, while its headline HD Traffic -- which tracks congestion on secondary roads as well as motorways -- and safety camera alert features will come to only 16 nations. It's a decent year-long freebie to have and TomTom promises it'll cost less than €50 ($67) per annum thereafter. That's more reasonable than the previous $9.95 monthly cost, but still not price-competitive with Google and Nokia's offerings. There's also a SIM card slot, but don't expect to be developing new modes of sidetalking, it's most likely there purely to facilitate all those data transactions.

What's clear here is that these devices sound a lot like iPads or iPod Touches, but just a tiny bit cheaper -- and without all the email, games, productivity software, or apps that make Apple's products so versatile. And besides, it's a shot in the dark: When it comes to GPS, as Time and Engadget implied, no one really cares about the fancy stuff. The average GPS consumer wants to get from point A to point B as simply and cheaply as possible. For Garmin, the strange Garmin-Asus Nuvifone smartphones confuse the brand even more, as they aren't strong enough devices to make a dent in the crowded handset market.

Garmin, TomTom and other GPS-dedicated companies are fighting for relevance -- and they are going in the wrong direction. Instead of adding "smartphone-lite" features to their overpriced gadgets, they should be streamlining, simplifying, and discounting their hardware to position them as superior single-use tools. The emphasis should be on low-cost, focused hardware, which is the only way they can keep their devices relevant while people lean more on smartphone GPS features powered by software from Google, Nokia and, ironically, Garmin.