The Perspective is the Strategy

So every time I drive anywhere in my car I have one continuing, consistent thought – I hate my GPS. I don’t hate it in a casual, mildly annoying way. I hate it in a deep, resentful, this-is-the-worst-UI-ever-manufactured sort of way. I hate the device not for the directions, but for the device experience. It’s poor, it’s clunky, and whoever built it never spent any time using it. I usually look at that little box hanging from a suction cup on my window and think, ‘mock me now, you’re days are over since Google released free GPS for the phone’.

It’s true, those GPS manufacturers are in a pretty bad place. TomTom, Garmin, and other GPS manufacturers had their share price free fall on Google’s free GPS announcement. Why would anyone pay for a device, if they could the same functionality in their phone for free?

I think there’s more than just paid vs. free. I think the difference lies in the difference in perspective a device company has from a service company. If you’re a device company your customer buys a ‘thing’. Once they buy that thing, they’re a cost to retain until they buy again; customer service, upgrades, anything. Garmin has changed nothing about my GPS since I bought it. In the three years we’ve owned that GPS Garmin has never evolved the experience. Sure they’ve fixed bugs, but I will never get a better experience until I buy another device.

It would be a completely different relationship if Garmin was a service company. A service mindset realizes that you only have a customer if you serve them. So beyond the service being free, Google will actually interact with the customers differently that Garmin. If I were to use a Google phone as a GPS, I have assurance that Google will constantly upgrade the service. They’ll be adding ads I’m sure, but I’d also expect them to improve screen flows and consistently refine the experience.

So when people talk about the dark days for physical GPS manufacturers, I don’t really think it’s a free vs. paid argument, I think it’s about how you serve your customer. I have a lot of confidence that if Garmin or any of those players really turned out a significantly better in-car GPS experience, they could hold on to their market share. That doesn’t mean adding photo albums, or fitness feaures…do you honestly think I’m going to go running with my car’s GPS? It means you have to be brilliant at the basics, that’s what people pay you for. Garmin sells a simple touchscreen device. They could deliver a software upgrade and overwhelm their entire customer base and make a big deal about it. If you’re a device company, you can’t see that. Upgrading the interface would just be foolish, you’ve already earned those customers. Something like that would just be a sunk cost.

Good luck guys. It’s going to be a long year.


  1. Hey Colin, I think there’s value in having a standalone GPS unit…I still want to use my phone/have it free (and maybe crash too). I wonder who will make an android touchscreen device and if Google will license Nav once they get their geo-ads in place?

    That would make an even longer year for Garmin & TomTom.

  2. I agree Dave. There seems to be a space for a chumby/iPod like device that could work off cell/wifi network for specific widgets for specific functions.

    It could be specific enough to get to market, but open enough to invite some serendipity through a developer network, maybe on Android?

    i could imagine
    – GPS in your car
    – networked baby monitor
    – reduced-function home phone

    what else?…seems like a rich area.

  3. Hey Colin, sorry I’m late to the party but I saw this post and had to comment. I too, hate my GPS (I think it erodes the drivers problem solving abilites) but I’m also really intrigued by it. I actually got a GPS because my partner kept nagging me that the free Iphone version wasn’t good enough. So rather than continuing with a passable but inferior free experience, we dropped 300 bucks to get an actual dedicated gps. After about 10 minutes I decided that I hated the thing (It has a terrible GUI and I felt starved for information so I kept looking at that tiny screen while driving) but what intrigued me was that my partner suddenly felt the need to have it direct him to places that he clearly knew how to get to on his own. In an interesting way, the GPS wasn’t just about functionality but was also about emotional confidence. Even when the GPS was sending us way out of our way, he was still happy because he felt confident that he was making the best route decisions (because the gps told him to take that path). If the real use of a GPS is to increase confidence, maybe to ‘win’ producers need stop asking themselves “how can i add more functionality to this device?” and start asking themselves “how can i make drivers more confident with a screen on a suction cup?”. Maybe GPS’s need to say “You’re doing a great job driving today!” or needs to say “thanks to following this path you’ve trimmed 10 minutes off of your commute.”
    Thinking about confidence building might take producers to all sorts of interesting places.

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