Goldstuck on Gadgets

Garmin navigates itself back to the future

April 5th, 2016
Before the explosion of smartphone mapping apps, Garmin was synonymous with navigation. Now it is fighting its way back to relevance, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
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Does anyone remember the PND? That stands for personal navigational device, and it was a standard accessory bought by drivers of mid- to upper-end vehicles. Typically, it was mounted on the inside of the windscreen via a suction cup. Does that ring a bell?

The dominant brands providing these clunky tools were Garmin and TomTom, and they became synonymous with the idea of maps going digital. But that was before the smartphone, and in the last seven years the global PND market  has plummeted.

From 40-million sales in each of 2008 and 2009, according to Berg Insight, it will have dropped to 10-million by 2019. GfK puts the 2014 total at 22-million – down by 21 per cent from 2013. The cause is obvious: by 2013, the monthly active user base for navigation apps on smartphones had reached 180-million.

How, then, do the likes of Garmin and TomTom survive? It’s obvious but hardly simple: they have to reinvent themselves, and they have to reinvent every category in which they operate.

TomTom has put the emphasis on its mapping solutions, driven by telematics and traffic data. Its fleet management solution is used by around 600 000 professional drivers. Its mapping systems are built into on-board vehicle navigation systems, and power Apple Maps as well as Uber.

Garmin, on the other hand, has set out to reinvent the categories for which it is already well-known in the consumer market. Its sports watches and activity trackers are among the most highly rated in this segment and it has relaunched its fitness product range with the vivo sub-brand.

It includes the vivofit fitness band and vivosmart HR activity tracker, which give the market leaders, the Fitbit Charge and Charge HR, a metaphorical and physical run for their money. The main difference is that, rather than focus on activity in itself, they focus on intensity of activity. It is no coincidence that the Vitality fitness rewards programme run by Discovery Health is also making a transition from rewarding activity to rewarding intensity of activity.

“The focus has moved away from steps and to things like intensity minutes,” says Marc Bainbridge, category manager for fitness and outdoor products at Garmin Southern Africa. “The movement to get people moving has been great, but now there’s a disconnect. Intensity minutes will drive people to get the real benefits.”

There is a strong South African connection in Garmin’s sports range. Last year it bought the world’s first cycling radar, which warns of cars approaching from behind, from Stellenbosch-based start-up iKubu. It rebranded it as the Varia Rearview Bike Radar and integrated it tightly into Garmin’s Edge range of cycling computers and the Varia head unit.

“You need so much experience to back such a device and to make it into a form factor that you can take to world markets,” says Walter Mech, CEO of Garmin for Sub-Saharan Africa. He points out that the investment is not unusual. Garmin has become world leader in niche recreational areas through similar acquisitions, like the compass manufacturer Nexus and boat communications brand Fusion, which has given It PND-like dominance in the marine market.

“Getting all these things to talk to each other is where Garmin is a specialist and continues to develop new markets,” says Mech. “You have to innovate continually, otherwise you’re stuck with three models of a single device. Our strength lies in our diversification.”

Reinventing the navigational device

And now it is the turn of the PND to be reinvented. Garmin has dropped the Nuvi name and rebranded its devices as the Drive series, which it says is “specifically designed to help increase driver’s awareness”. The Drive, DriveSmart, DriveAssist and DriveLuxe each take the concept to higher levels.

The features that differentiate these devices may be found individually in a range of apps and gadgets, but are rarely well-integrated.  It starts with warnings for upcoming sharp curves, alerts for users driving the wrong-way on a one-way street, and fast-approaching traffic jam notifications, and culminates in fatigue warning alerts on long journeys, with suggestions for potential break times and available rest areas.

“The Nuvi brand was seven or eight years old,” says Mathys Thompson, automotive product manager at Garmin Southern Africa. “Because navigation has become so commercialised and everyone has got it on smartphones, we had to find something to make it relevant again.”

The basic devices, with a range comprising the Drive 40, 50 and 60, replace the entry-level Nuvi units. The more advanced DriveSmart introduces Bluetooth, traffic smart notifications, calendar alerts, a social media feed and WhatsApp integration.

The DriveAssist includes a dashcam, which adds lane change warnings to the mix, along with Go Alert for when you stop at a traffic light and the camera picks up traffic in front is moving while you remain stationary. Finally, the DriveLux offers a premium metal housing and capacitive touch screen.

The functionality, says Thompson, will keep evolving in ways that smartphones can’t match.

“We are now integrating the devices with a backup camera. People are demanding an after-market backup camera, meaning one you can fit to the vehicle after you’ve bought it, allowing you to see behind the vehicle when in reverse. The BC 30 Wireless Backup camera comes with a transmitter for the back of the car and a receiver that plugs into the Drive device.”

Thompson offers one simple but massive benefit of the way Garmin is navigating itself back to the future: “The most exciting development of the new Garmin Drive series is that the driver awareness features typically seen in luxury vehicles are now accessible as an aftermarket solution for all drivers.”

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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