My wife and I were taking the 2+ hour drive back from Cape Cod this past weekend, being directed, as always, by my Garmin StreetPilot III the best ridiculous amount of money I've spent on an electronic gadget in as long as I can remember. Although not quite perfect (nothing is), a self-contained moving-map GPS device such as this leaves me confident that I can't get lost, and that I can find almost any destination with little effort. It is, from a business and personal travel perspective, as highly addictive as the worst of addictive drugs.
My only major complaint to Garmin: why, oh why, didn't you allow for the use of the GB IBM MicroDrive, rather than the proprietary 128 MB memory card -- it would have drastically expanded the area that the unit could explore between visits to the PC or notebook, to half the U.S. or more, at virtually the same price as one memory card!
It gets better.
But the services that this device offers get even better. Because, so long as you're traveling within the detailed map area that you've previously download, from a PC into the device's memory card (several states' worth of data, depending on the density of the area involved), the database also includes a wealth of information about ‘points of interest’ along the way, such as, lodging, businesses, restaurants, government services, and much more -- all fully integrated into the navigation software.
For example, it was approaching dinner time, and it's always our policy to try new restaurants beyond our normal stomping grounds when feasible. In this case, Thai food sounded good, so I punched up ‘Food & Drink / Asian’, and told the StreetPilot III to list the nearest candidates. This presented a list, sorted with the closest Asian restaurants first, with each entry showing the distance to that restaurant along with an arrow showing its direction from our direction-of-travel (so I knew which ones would require backtracking, vs. those in front of us.) And the list, as with all such lists, was ‘live’, meaning that in real time the list re-sorted as we got farther from choices we had passed, while new restaurants in front of us appeared as they got within range. The mileage figures for each entry, and their directional arrows, were similarly ‘live’.
This would be pretty useful by itself, but a click on any of these restaurants, brought up a display of its address and phone number. That phone number made it a snap to chat with likely candidates to get an idea of their cuisine, see how busy they were, and generally get a sense if this restaurant met our desires. Which brings me to one area where this database just aches to be expanded.
It could be Even Better!
As we settled on prospective restaurants, we pulled out my wife's PDA which contains the Zagat's restaurant survey, to get an opinion of how those restaurants near us were rated. (The result of this on-the-fly data surfing was a very good Thai dinner!)
But that process was needlessly complex. Why not integrate such added-value material as the Zagat's guide right into the navigation database? (We'll ignore space concerns, since that always gets better, as well as the cost of the additional information, since we already paid separately for the Zagat information, plus enhanced volume through bundling would likely reduce its price.)
Similarly and even more important, how about including real-time traffic info into the GPS display and route calculations -- this would be an invaluable mobile ‘Killer App!’
I know -- some of these capabilities are already available in some markets, at least under experimental conditions. And once wireless bandwidth is pervasive, virtually any information could be integrated through standards such as XML. Just imagine what a difference in time-and-frustration-saved, in added-convenience, (and in better meals), such real-time data integration would make. And (hint - hint), imagine the leading edge that such services, coupled with excellent hardware and databases,
might give to the company(s) who first offer such integrated services!
(It's also rather interesting that in this discussion, I've said little about the StreetPilot III's core GPS functionality -- it just works. Raw GPS data is now a commodity available from chips in your pocket cell phone, much less from these larger, task-oriented units. But what good would a raw readout of lat./long./elevation be to most of us?
Indeed, the differentiation for ‘location-aware’ devices is no longer in how well the basic GPS functions work, since a highly functional ‘floor’ has already been established as the ‘price of entry’. Instead, the overall value of current and future ‘GPS devices’, will be judged more on the ‘integration’ of an ever-growing sphere of information (restaurants, traffic info, real-time updated street maps, satellite photo overlays, and far more), on better displays and user interfaces (the StreetPilot III's color display and fairly good user interface set it in front of the pack on GPS mapping functions alone), plus on other functions that dramatically enhance the ‘basic’ location service.)
I know that these further ‘integrations’ will happen. It's just a matter of by whom, and when. The good news is that this is certainly not news to the companies poised to further change our commutes, our business trips, and those wonderful family trips with the kids (to whom, when they inevitably whine "Are we there yet?", you can now look at the GPS and respond "Just another 2 hours, 14 minutes, and 16 seconds, Johnny.").
Of course Johnny, who probably mastered the depths of the GPS software and user interfaces far faster than his parents, might also point out that Burger King is only 3.2 miles ahead, and would take them only .23 miles out of their way. And oh, look -- there's a nice miniature golf range just beyond that...