Views from Phanfare CEO and Co-founder Andrew Erlichson

Link The case for purpose-built devices

We all hear that Garmin is going to be disrupted by cell phones and be left with no business. Maybe that is true, but that day has not yet arrived for geocaching, a hobby of mine.

I went out geocaching today with my son. Geocaching is awesome. It combines three different activities that I love: hiking, treasure hunts and GPS electronics.

I have the Groundspeak geocaching app for the iPhone. It’s a pretty neat piece of work, leveraging the built in GPS to provide lists of caches nearby with full descriptions, maps and log entries. The app provides all the collateral info that I need to decide which cache to pursue, alleviating the need to do legwork on the computer before going out to geocache.

But when it comes to actually finding a cache under heavy tree cover, the app is no subsititute for a dedicated GPS unit. Today was typical. The app got us within 100 feet of the cache, or so the phone seemed to indicate, but the location kept jumping around. Lacking confidence that we were in the right vicinity, I entered the coordinates into my Garmin GPS 60csx, a three year old unit. The Garmin pointed me about 100 yards away. When I got to the location the Garmin centered on, the cache was about 20 yards away and easily visible.

Purpose-built devices will nearly always outperform general purpose devices. The only caveat to that is when the market for the general purpose device is so much larger that there are inadequate R&D dollars to fund a better purpose-built device.

Purpose-built devices are typically more expensive, especially considering that they do only one thing well, but if you need performance, you will buy a purpose-built device.

Photography and GPS are both under seige from the low end from smart phones. But in both, if performance is your primary criteria, then you will likely buy a purpose-built device. However, there are attributes of the general purpose device, in particular the network connectivity and UI that smart phones provide, which are becoming essential features of GPS devices and cameras. So if the manufacturers want to attract the performance-driven consumer, they will need to add those.

Case in point: my 7-yr old son was calibrating the compass on the 60CSx and tried to active the ‘start’ button by touching the screen. Of course, there is no touch screen on the 60CSx, but he is so used to user interfaces being touch and intuitive that he would never think to hit a dedicated button. In his world, you point at what you want on the screen.

My son looking to touch the screen, only reiterates that the purpose-built devices better have the other basic features like networking and user interface worked out to be competitive.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that Garmin is not going to be hurt by smart phones. They will be hurt, but I suspect that they can continue to exist for quite some time at the high end of the market if they make the right investments. I would buy a dedicated Garmin GPS unit, based on Android, that was very accurate and could also provide me the information that the Geocaching app provides on the iPhone. How they will manage to get wireless data on there is another matter.

Also, I just want to make clear that this post is an update to my earlier post when the Geocaching app first shipped. Back then, I though I might be able to leave my Garmin at home for geocaching. True some of the time, but not for the harder caches.

Of course, the general purpose devices are not standing still. If the GPS performance gets much better, then Garmin will be squeezed even further into the high end.

  • Chad

    Well written! I imagine this will play out much like McDonald's vs Starbucks did this year.

    There will always be some who value convenience over quality.

  • nealcg

    Andrew, this is a thoughtful comment. I believe I largely agree. I do sense a slow move toward multifunction devices. I use the reverse polish calculator on my iphone rather than purchase a calculator. I would use my iphone as my car GPS unit, if it only worked just a bit better. I use high end DSLRs, and they seem to be migrating toward also being video cameras. Of course the laptop is the ultimate multi function device.

    Not that long ago (15years) I was giving a talk in Rochester NY. The people from Kodak became outraged when I said that film cameras were on the way out.

    I think that low end digital cameras will soon be replaced by phone cameras – how about that? High end cameras will continue to move toward increased dynamic range and increased pixel count.

    Neal Gallagher

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    However, there are attributes of the general purpose device, in particular the network connectivity and UI that smart phones provide, which are becoming essential features of GPS devices and cameras. So if the manufacturers want to attract the performance-driven consumer, they will need to add those.

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    Of course, there is no touch screen on the 60CSx, but he is so used to user interfaces being touch and intuitive that he would never think to hit a dedicated button. In his world, you point at what you want on the screen.

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