Destination everywhere: TomTom maps out the future for GPS

14th Sep 2013 | 12:01

Destination everywhere: TomTom maps out the future for GPS

TomTom talks Google Glass, wearable tech and how its latest mission is to make things simple again

TomTom: from sat nav to sports

Earlier this year, TomTom presented the world with its very own fork in the road. The company, known mainly for its in-car sat nav devices, announced that it would be venturing into the lucrative arena of wearable tech with the launch of the TomTom Runner, its own sports watch.

This isn't a sideline for TomTom, but a sector of the market that is now seen as on a par with its personal navigation devices (PNDs). This marks a significant change in a company that was once known for simply getting you from A to B.

TomTom now wants to be seen as the company that can 'get you where you want to be', whether that be in terms of location or physical fitness. Either way, it's an opportunistic helping hand.

GPS heritage

"Yes, if we are totally honest we did start off a bit opportunistically in the sports sector," explained Gary Raucher, Global VP of marketing, to TechRadar. "We looked at it with the thinking that we have this very rich heritage with GPS, so where else can we apply our GPS technologies and we said, well, there is a market out there that uses GPS in sports watches."

TomTom sports watch

TomTom initially partnered with Nike to offer up its technology in the sports sector, but it soon wanted to create a standalone device of its own that would compliment what it was doing with Nike.

"The Nike partnership helped us learn about a totally different target audience when it comes to the athletes that are using these products," said Raucher. "We saw the potential of where the larger wearable technology market is going. We thought it was a good fit, not just from a technology point of view but a brand point of view.

"We didn't want to stray too far from what TomTom is known for, so a GPS sports watch seemed a good fit."

Sporting chance

Not straying too far from its core values seems apt for a company that prides itself on its precise mapping technology. Raucher does admit, though, that TomTom is always looking for new areas for the mapping service to grow, and while it may not be creating these new product areas, it is taking the Apple approach and refining them.

Take the aforementioned sports sector. TomTom is late in creating a sports watch, which inevitably means that its myriad rivals have had a head start. But this doesn't seem to faze the company.

TomTom sports watch

"Before we enter any space we want to make sure that we are delivering upon a need in the marketplace," Raucher explained. "We want to be able to not just meet consumer expectations, but exceed them. That will either come through a breakthrough of new technology, or a better application of existing technology.

"In the case of our watch, all of this technology already existed, but we packaged it in such a way that we are innovating in that space."

Free running

But where does this leave the sat nav business? With a proliferation of free services out there, you would think that TomTom would be worried about being muscled out of this space. But Raucher believes there's an 'electric toothbrush' effect that protects TomTom's premium devices.

Google and Apple may well offer compelling free map and turn-by-turn location offerings - the latter is actually powered by TomTom - but those who try TomTom's paid-for option tend to stick with it.

"I used to work with Philips and we found that if someone has never used an electric toothbrush they don't know what they are missing. So, getting someone to use an electric toothbrush is the hardest sell. But once people use an electric toothbrush, they won't go back to a cheaper manual one," explained Raucher.

"If people haven't experienced the superior TomTom traffic then they are probably okay with a free service. But experience it and it is very difficult to go back. So our biggest marketing problem is getting people to realise that not all traffic is equal and getting them to try out a premium version."

This potential problem with free applications was highlighted last year with Apple's iOS Maps debacle. Too many wrong turns within its maps application meant Apple was hit with a barrage of criticism for its free offering.

While this nicely highlights TomTom's insistence that premium is better, it could have also been detrimental to the TomTom brand - its technology was used in the creation of Apple Maps. Instead of damaging credibility, though, Raucher believes it actually re-inforced the company's confidence in its own data.

"When the Apple Maps situation was happening, of course we checked to make sure that the data we were providing was accurate and that it was the same data we were providing to any one of our customers. We partner with our customers as we want them to be successful. What we did was reaffirm that we were confident in the quality of our information and our data and we stand by this quality."

TomTom: sat navs and beyond

Keeping it real

Quality of the software is one thing, but then there's the issue that sat nav hardware is still seen as a 'buy once, update never' offering.

Stephane Hareau, global marketing director of TomTom international, told TechRadar that this is a stigma TomTom hopes to rid itself of with its latest release. "What we do need to do is bring a daily relevance to how people use their sat nav. A typical user for sat navs used to be occasional, but access to real-time information is changing this. We're showing people there is a benefit to using a sat nav every single day."

One way Hareau hopes TomTom can achieve this is by looking at how often people change their smartphones and try and get dedicated sat navs onto a similar product cycle. This is undoubtedly a hard sell, but Hareau hopes the promise of real-time features will prompt people to purchase new hardware.

TomTom in-car GPS

"With the new Go series, we're making a fundamental shift to realise that now is the time to replace your sat nav. An average change for a smartphone is every 18 months, but people always have a reason to upgrade. With sat navs this has never been the case, but now is the time with our new Go range. The real-time traffic service is a massive benefit. It's recognised as the top traffic service and consumers should use this."

The future of TomTom

Given that TomTom has lasted nearly 20 years in the mapping business, its data archives are undoubtedly the key to its longevity. With 350 million probes of data coming in from TomTom's community, whether passive data from mobile phone signals and PNDs, or active data from those who participate in map share programs, the biggest challenge for TomTom is how it simplifies this information for the everyday user.

"Our CTO calls us an information processor and he is right," said Raucher. "What TomTom does extremely well is take lots of data points that to the average person they are meaningless. What we do is transform all that data into actionable information. We are providing knowledge to people, we want to empower them by giving them that knowledge so they can make better decisions."

And where next for this data? Now TomTom is pushing itself in the sports market, expect more launches in this arena and maybe even some sort of Google Glass rival.

Google Glass is obviously a perfect fit for TomTom and is certainly an area that's being looked at but, again, TomTom is all about refining a product category and not driving blindly into one.

As Stephane Hareau explained to us: "The technology for glasses is not quite ready yet. It needs to improve before we think about getting into this area. Obviously we are constantly looking at new trends and how TomTom fits into these. We've seen ski glasses with this tech in the past and the lenses weren't great. You had to focus too hard on the information, which is tough when you're on the slopes. There is a fine balance in getting this technology right."

Hareau continued: "It's such a new space, you can't jump into something like this. But it's great to see how people react to Google Glass, it's a fascinating trend. It's an area that will happen but we aren't quite at this stage yet."

Commuter love

One stage TomTom is at, is that of using its real-time data to target a consumer who feels they have absolutely no need for a sat nav: the everyday commuter, or those who go to the same place every day without even thinking about it.

Raucher believes TomTom's real-time traffic data can help those who shun sat navs, noting that: "Commuters don't need turn by turn navigation as they know exactly where they are going. But what they don't know is whether they are better off sitting it out in traffic or taking an alternative route. Do you stay on the highway or take to the streets?

"Every single day, every hour, even every minute that answer can be potentially different, so we are looking for opportunities that make it very easy for people to make the right decisions so they arrive at their destination and reach their goals."

TomTom Sports Google Glass GPS Activity tracker MC Choice
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