When the smartphone has replaced so many other devices—including small cameras, notebooks, voice recorders, portable stereo systems … the list is long—shouldn’t it be obvious that it must also replace the humble standalone GPS device that was one of the most popular after-market fitments in cars three to four years ago. To understand why they haven’t, I talked to Shivalik Prasad, executive director, MapmyIndia, which is the leader in premium quality map data, APIs, GPS navigation, tracking, location apps and GIS solutions. He tells me that though sales of standalone GPS devices, also called portable navigation devices (PND), have been hit, in no way a smartphone is ‘replacing’ PNDs. “First, smartphone screens are often tiny, and those on dedicated GPS units can be almost twice the size. In addition, navigation apps are processor-intensive, causing smartphones to heat up and the battery to run down faster,” Prasad says.
“Moreover, standalone GPS devices are specialised products, with far more precise voice directions. By using such devices, your phone will be free for its more important functions.” His argument makes sense. I have been using GPS navigation, Google Maps to be exact, on my Android phone for quite some time. What I have observed is that when I receive a call, and even if I answer it using hands-free Bluetooth, the smartphone map sometimes disappears. Similarly, if I am playing music on my smartphone, the songs are cut out to make way for the voice prompts, giving directions. “Standalone GPS devices are simply more convenient to use. You can rely on these devices,” Prasad adds. “There are still a lot of customers who want a product that’s fit for one purpose, i.e., showing maps and guiding you to your destination.”
Some top-end standalone GPS devices also have landmark-type voice guidance. So, if a Google Maps will say “turn on right or left street,” a good GPS device will say “turn at the hospital building” or “turn at the red building” and so on. It just makes it easier to find the correct turn.
Standalone GPS devices do have a comparative disadvantage. They can’t show you real-time traffic updates, like Google Maps does. “Yes, that can be a concern area for some. However, ask yourself, when do you really need maps? It’s when you don’t know the locality. What if you are driving in an area where there’s no mobile connectivity? Phone apps won’t work, but standalone GPS devices will,” he says. “Over the years, we have developed an excellent street-level map database, even of the remotest regions of India.” So, for a drive around town or for your regular home to office and back commuting, smartphones make sense, but for longer trips, dedicated car GPS devices do have some advantages—they don’t need a data connection to plot a route. I experienced the same during a recent trip from Pune to Lavasa. A few kilometres out of Pune, I lost data connectivity and Google Maps died, but a GPS device would have stayed alive. “Despite tall statements by telecom companies, claiming 100% data coverage pan-India, we all experience black spots,” Prasad says, adding, “and it is these precise black spots where you might need maps the most, since these often are areas with low population density and little support or guidance, if needed.”
While standalone GPS devices do have advantages, aren’t they expensive? “No, the devices we make cost `6,000 to `18,000. Common sense dictates that a person buying, say, a sub-`10 lakh car might go for entry-level devices and the one buying an expensive car might opt for top-end versions. All in all, it comes out to be about 1% of the cost of your car,” he adds. In the Indian standalone GPS device market, MapmyIndia is the leader, having over 90% of market share. The market size is a little over 1 lakh unit sales per year, or just 4% of the total car sales in India (about 25 lakh units). “We have been facing a challenge. Even though car sales have been growing, the market size of standalone GPS devices—those that are available in the after-market, including at car dealerships—has remained the same over the last 2-3 years,” Prasad says. The reason has to be the wider availability of the smartphone and lowering data costs.
However, Prasad has some good news to share, too. “MapmyIndia has, until now, tied up with 14 car companies and they are factory-fitting our solutions in their models. The more their cars sell, the more we sell. So, our overall sales aren’t going down,” he adds. So, in this standalone GPS device versus smartphone argument, there’s no clear winner. By using such devices your phone will be free for its more important functions. Yes, you can use your phone too for navigation, but a device is more convenient to use. We say, don’t dismiss car GPS devices, yet.