The Mainstream-ification of GPS

GPS technology has been around for 30 years and existed as a consumer device for the past decade, slowly moving from an expensive novelty (“Hey, I can tell where I’m located using a satellite!”) to something looming on the periphery of the mainstream as prices decline, devices becomes more user-friendly and more services are created.

But based on anecdotal experience and the fact you can’t browse through a consumer electronics flyer without seeing multiple GPS units vying for your attention, 2008 is going to be the year GPS truly goes mainstream.

In some respects, GPS has been a cool technology looking for a problem to solve. It was great for people, for example, who did outdoor sports such as camping, mountain climbers and hikers and for geocaching. but it was arguably a niche product.

For whatever reason, the GPS market has evolved or matured. It now appears the GPS has found its mainstream sweet-spot as a must-have for drivers going from point A to point B – a huge market. No matter if you’re tooling around town or taking long trips, the GPS is starting to appeal to everyone. In fact, it’s starting to replace map books such as Perly’s that people kept in the glove box of their cars.

With GPS units being easy to use and configure, there’s little pain of buying a $100 to $300 unit from a GPS maker such as Garmin and TomTom. Even if you don’t use it that often, more people see clearly having one as no longer a luxury but a requirement.

Meanwhile, GPS is making aggressive inroads in the cell phone market where more units are GPS-equiped – something carriers love because it generates even more revenue/users. Most of these services cost $5 to $10/month and give you everything from voice navigation and restaurant reviews to event listings.

Now, if they made GPS units for urban bicycle commuters, then I might consider one to navigate Toronto’s network of back alleys. :)

Note: Last year, 33.9 million GPS units were sold compared with 11.9 million in 2006. In the U.S., 10% of drivers own a GPS device compared with 20% in Europe. And speaking of GPS, you know it’s really hit the mainstream when you see lots of interest in a story about a Swedish art student who created a large “drawing” using GPS.

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  • Dan York


    It’s indeed a fascinating evolution of usage. Like so much else in our lives, maps/directions are being pushed up into the online cloud… Google Maps, MapQuest and all the other sites have become the tools we now use to get directions. I can’t honestly think of the last time I pulled out one of my old AAA maps to use it for directions. I just punch the address into Google Maps and print out the directions. GPS systems now make that even easier. They also address the times when I *have* in the past used my printed maps… when I’ve been traveling and looking to find some place or route. A GPS unit can just help you and re-route as you are driving. Fascinating time we live in. Thanks for publishing those stats.


  • Michael Janke

    The compelling feature (for me) is not the mapping. Paper works just fine for that. It’s the POI (Point of Interest) database that comes with the GPS. If I need gasoline, it tells me where the nearby gas stations are, and for an additional fee, it goes on-line and tells me how much the gas costs.

    That sort of functionality, where location + service is brought together by a GPS with on-line access, if expanded out to food, hotels, movies, clothes, etc., could make the devices extraordinarily useful.

    GPS + Navigation + Yellow Pages + online price and inventory would let me do ‘drive-by-shopping’. Or – ‘who in the area has left handed widgets for sale and at what price’. Sort of like combining the old Yellow Pages with a paper map and a lot of phone calls to check what’s in stock.

    They have the potential to be revolutionary devices, for more than just their navigational accuracy. The company that takes the functionality of Google local search & combines it with on line inventory, the POI’s and navigational capability will have a nice product. (As some cell providers are attempting to do.)

  • Jim Courtney

    I have been using GPS technology off-and-on for the past seven years. But the most interesting experience occurred while attending ceBit in Hanover, Germany last year. At the end of our long days in or visiting booths, we’d all get into our host’s SUV, he’d look up restaurants in the GPS system and we had two of the most interesting meal experiences in places we never would have found in the tourist books or by any other means.

    It’s the gradual penetration of GPS into mobile phones that will drive more users to adopting GPS, whether in a vehicle navigation system or on a mobile device, in the long term. I have it on both my Blackberry 8820 and Nokia N95 evaluation units. Just yesterday Google Maps on my Blackberry, combined with the GPS helped me find a route around a traffic jam on the 401 while traveling to Waterloo.

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