The global satellite navigation industry has enjoyed a period of extraordinary expansion, which has culminated in GPS chips being found in everything from cars to mobile phones, dog collars to children’s shoes. But it is now no longer just about straightforward navigation.

First Google, then Nokia, released their respective GPS apps for free, indicating that days appeared numbered for companies seeking to generate large profits from the sale of devices and map data-sets alone. With location-based services almost universally acknowledged as the way of the future, enhanced mapping – both in terms of even greater detail and the provision of truly global coverage – coupled with improved integration will undoubtedly be key.

Smartphones and apps

The meteoric rise in the use of smartphones, and the blossoming of their associated driver-centric apps, has had a significant influence on the development of GPS-based navigational informatics and technology – and ultimately on their means of delivery. The logic behind this rise is compelling, since few other devices offer the same winning combination of convenience, widespread uptake, flexibility and scope for customisation. They also have the advantage of pushing on one of the industry’s biggest open doors – the quest to define a new benchmark in the provision of detailed information to drivers on the go, and then take it to a truly mass market.

“The days are numbered for companies seeking to generate large profits from the sale of devices and map data-sets alone.”

As dedicated satnav units are inexorably superseded by a new generation of increasingly smart devices, the consumer base for such portable navigational software appears to be waiting, primed and ready.

As PrimoSpot CEO Michael Hill explains, “the market for road apps is huge and the main reason is that the dedicated GPS devices we see will eventually be phased out in favour of a more combined smarter device – or the manufacturers will just start to use a mobile operating system so that the existing apps will work.

“Why buy a dedicated GPS device when you can buy an Android device and use it for other things?” he continues. “Just as long as the accuracy is good enough – and that gets better all the time.”

Beyond the right turn

It is not only the mapping technology and the devices themselves that are evolving; the scope and functionality of data supplied is shifting too. “It’s morphing away from standalone traffic apps and into an integrated navigational aid,” says David Levine, director of next-generation services at road traffic information specialist ITIS Holdings.

One company that seems poised to take full advantage of the opportunity is NAVTEQ – arguably the world’s leading provider of maps, traffic and location data, and one of the most successful exponents of out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to expanding the wider potential of digital location content. When you consider how long the average person spends behind the wheel, all those drivers make for a captive audience. In December 2010, for instance, the company received the EMMA prize for the most effective location-based mobile advertising campaign in Europe, with advertising vice-president Chris Rothey commenting at the time that “location can and will transform the ad experience”. It can also transform the driving experience too, and NAVTEQ has plenty to offer that provides more direct assistance, and the innovations just keep coming.

In January, it launched a free online service allowing drivers to calculate the potential savings to be made by using a navigation system – a staggering average annual reduction of around 2,500km and an allied 12% reduction in fuel, according to a study carried out in Germany. In the same month, NAVTEQ revealed a new take on the well-established linear instructions of conventional satnav, with the advent of the beta navigation application ‘iGO My way’. This ‘natural guidance’ system generates directions the way a friend does, so gone is the blandly impersonal ‘turn right in 100 yards’ to be replaced by the more human-like instruction to make your manoeuvre ‘before the tall white tower’. As Jeff Mize, executive vice-president for sales puts it, “navigation is evolving rapidly with more user-friendly enhancements.”

Crowd-sourcing and commercialism

Inevitably, the continued progress of that evolution places its own pressures on the underlying mapping process. The development of the kind of location-centric services widely envisaged throughout the industry depends on detail-rich informatics, and crowd-sourcing could be one way to provide it.

Founded in 2004, community-driven maps database OpenStreetMap has been employing exactly this concept from the start, providing data-sets that can be edited, customised and used for free. “The value is that it is a richer map with more up-to-date information because anyone can fix things,” says Steve Coast, one of its founders. “Users get access to the underlying data and not just a picture of the maps.”

“The commercial future of GPS applications may ultimately lie in services funded by advertising revenue, rather than user subscriptions.”

PrimoSpot’s Hill echoes this view. “I think crowd-sourcing will make for much smarter data analysis. Mining data from users in an app means I can tell you right now where people are trying to find and finding, and what parking spaces in the cities we cover – the transport department can’t!”

There are, of course, intrinsic problems of privacy and confidentiality bound up in the whole issue of locational analysis, even if it is done on an anonymous basis. While this may take some of the urgency out of any current rush to uptake, many believe that future generations of road users are likely to view such issues more leniently, and these are precisely the users who are most inclined towards a content-for-free ideology. If such assumptions are true, and, as Hill suggests, they really “have come to expect ‘freemium’ as standard”, then the business model for many GPS providers is about to face a sudden and radical paradigm shift.

At least for the moment, satellite navigational companies place their faith in the reliability of their offerings, and it is undeniably true that this market differs from the internet, where as Steve Andler, marketing vice-president at Networks In Motion, said, “everything’s free and always in beta”. Nevertheless, it seems that the commercial future of GPS may ultimately lie in services funded by advertising revenue, rather than user subscriptions. For the navigation and mapping industry, as Bob Dylan put it, “the times, they are a-changing”.