Maps and navigation innovation

For quite a few years in-car navigation has been a very good business. Companies kept improving their hardware and selling every other year (if not within a year) a new device to their customers. I am talking about the navigation systems like TomTom and Garmin, not those that you buy integrated in your car, of course.

The interface had, over the years, small improvements and refinements, but hardly any major change. While Garmin was the leader up to 5 or 6 years ago, at least in Europe TomTom has taken a clear lead both in pricing and UI. Some might argue Garmin has better accuracy, but it’s not SOO much better, in my opinion. Companies like Navigon have tried some innovation, but they haven’t conquered enough market share, at least until now.

Then mobile devices entered the game. It happened in various small steps like the introduction of GPS chips and Nokia’s acquisition of NAVTEQ.
Also, Apple has proven that people LOVE maps on their phones and need something that is not necessarily a navigation system while driving. See for example slides 5 and 11 from this great presentation by Skyhook (the technology providers for location services on iPhones and other devices).

Nokia has come with some interesting application, service and business model, see the Ovi Maps and these 2 demo videos. It is very interesting, it is definitely going to hit Garmin and TomTom, but it’s still a paid service, so it will not kill the other businesses.

Apple has quitely acquired a company called Placebase. This confirms the interest of mobile device makers in location and maps services (and probably also adds to the current Google-Apple competition). Obviously, relying on Google’s Maps wasn’t good enough for Apple, hence expect some innovation here. It will have to be seen what they can achieve when competing with Nokia’s technology acquired from NAVTEQ and Google, it cannot be just eyecandy.

Now comes in Google with Android 2 and the new maps service. There’s a good quick look from TechCrunch, Google Redefines GPS Navigation Landscape: Google Maps Navigation For Android 2.0. Google’s service is going to be free to use and comes in an Open Source OS. Not only, it comes with some very interesting innovation in the UI and service such as the use of Street View, the ability to search for Points of Interest on your route and traffic alerts. Yes, points of interest have been there for a while, but how good are they? It doesn’t seem to me like they can be compared with Google Maps on the web. I expect this on-device service to be as good.

OpenStreetMap proves that you can create a good map with crowd sourcing and if Google is going to be in millions of phones within next year, it will not be hard to add a small button that makes you share “anonymous” data to Google so that they can track a lot of information with minimal effort (it’s not hard to guess there’s a motorway when you’re traveling at 150km/h on a straight line).

What is the future of companies like TomTom, Garmin, or even those that sold maps? Who can provide the level of detail that Google will have?