I can’t remember the last time I rolled down my car window to ask for directions. Everything we want to know on the road is on the phone map, thanks to satellite navigation. Actually, we seem to overlook the impact of this technology on our lives in recent times. From an Uber to a Zomato or a Facebook, thousands of companies and millions of people owe their jobs to this technology opening up new avenues, quite literally. Even though the technology has changed so much in the past couple of decades, TomTom, the Dutch company which was among the pioneers of SatNav, or satellite navigation, still sees an opportunity is using this technology to change the world. Corinne Vigreux was among the four founders. In fact, TomTom started out as a four-person company but now have over 5,000 employees, a lot of them in Pune, its second largest R&D centre. Vigreux, now the managing director of TomTom’s consumer business, however, lists the many pivots the company had to go through to get here. “In the early 1990s, when computers were not that popular, we were very good at designing easy-to-use software. Then we went from B2B software to B2C software, with Palm Pilots and PDAs. Then we started making navigation software for those kinds of products,” she says. The next big pivot came when TomTom made a hardware product that catapulted it from a 40-million-euro to a 1.5-billion-euro company, selling millions of products. “We created the category that allowed people to go from point A to point B with satellite navigation.” But then came 2008 and Google with its free turn-by-turn navigation maps.
However, that did not wipe out TomTom, which invested in technologies and diversified into products like wearables and started supplying their technology to companies like Apple. Even its SatNav hardware business is looking up, with Vigreux predicting that the market could grow to 10 million units worth about 500 million euros in five years. “It is still a substantial business as a lot of customers like having a dedicated device. Then you also have systems built in the cars and we are supplying technology for maps, apps and traffic information.” While we now have real-time satellite maps on all phones, it seems the real use of the technology is round the corner. TomTom and others see satellite navigation as one of the crucial technologies that will drive the urban mobility revolution in the coming years.
“It is huge for us and are very well placed to play a major role in this entire urban mobility revolution. We are heavily invested and are one of the big players in developing high definition maps,” Vigreux says, quick to add that she has a lot of engineers concentrating on autonomous driving. “We are using AI and deep learning for object recognition with computer vision to complement the offering.” Vigreux thinks this technology once again has the potential to revolutionise the world. “I am a big believer that when technology solves a major problem, it gets accepted by the people. If I look at automated driving, it will solve many problems, the problem of pollution in cities, traffic, and will help with public transport and less people will die on the roads.”
Meanwhile, there’s another product that started around the same time as TomTom is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Lenovo ThinkPad has gone on a roller-coaster ride when it comes to adoption of new technologies and innovating when there was the need to solve a specific problem. It is only when you listen to Kevin Beck, senior WW Competitive Analyst, Lenovo Customer Center, and the thinker behind the Think, that you realise the pain that’s gone into getting to being the ubiquitous business laptop of our times. But one fun fact about the ThinkPad is that when the first one was designed in Japan in 1992, it was supposed to be the Bento Box of computing. A simple black box that generated a sense of anticipation, wonder and awe.