The navigation software market seemed to have been under heavy commodity pressure recently. With Google providing free navigation now for all Android phones, NOKIA felt they had to pull out something too also in light of Apple’s iPhone success. Of course the $8.1 billion they spent on Navteq needed to also put to work quickly. Unfortunately they did once more not get the end user requirements and decided to confuse people by offering free maps (for some of their handsets) and free turn-by-turn voice-directed navigation (again for only some of their handsets and confusingly different ones than the few who have free maps).
So where is this all leading and what can we expect in this market to happen?
In my opinion NOKIA will once more not be able to profit from this new development. They did not only enter this opportunity too late, spending also way to much money on Navteq but also screwed it then up with confusing licensing terms and announcing FREE in the headlines when in fact the small print shows that this is only true for a few handsets. Google will go its path and probably soon offer the best location based and real world viewing experience and that for free. With that move they will put a huge amount of pressure on the other navigation companies to innovate even more and faster. Navigon and TomTom have clearly seen this pressure and reacted with price cuts and many new developments such as 3D map views, voice activation, alternative route suggestions based on driving habits or real-time traffic situations. Both offer their products now on the iPhone with nice mounting cradles to use it in the car. TomTom even has one with a built-in GPS receiver chip to improve the navigation for the iPhone and enable the iPod Touch as well. But both vendors face a dilemma that is hard to fight: pricing drops drastically while at the same time more and more devices and features seem to be required to be able to offset this trend with more unit sales. They need to streamline their production costs and reduce hardware to very few platforms while putting all efforts into software development. Location based services is the way to go as well as combining it with social networking but while this is easy to say it requires a totally new approach and most importantly new business models where also online and mobile ads should be looked at. Both companies need new talent that are experts in online ads and social networking. I doubt though that they will be able to pull that off quickly enough which will make them acquisition targets maybe for other mobile phone vendors. Of course currently their navigation devices are still better than Google’s since they can clearly profit from years of experience in the car navigation market, but that gap will shrink quickly in the next 2-3 years if not even faster.
Garmin needs to be mentioned as well. The company did a smart move understanding the danger of commodity markets obviously very well and was branching out into all kinds of vertical markets with specialized products (flying, boating, trucking, hunting, hiking and all kinds of sports). It will be much harder to compete against them by Google and since they are established now in many of these vertical markets TomTom and Navigon are simply too late to copy that business model and most likely also don’t have the cash to do so. So I think Garmin looks fine while the rest will face tough times ahead.