Americans don’t like to hear that the Europeans and Japanese are way ahead of them in adopting a new technology. But that has been the reality with GPS (global positioning system) applications and devices.

GPS is the system of 24 satellites developed by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1970s so that military units in wartime could know their own location and those of other units. This completely free system sends signals intercepted by GPS receivers, which determine latitude and longitude by computing the difference in the time it takes for signals from different satellites to reach the receiver.

Michael Goodman, product manager for ALK Technologies at 1000 Herrontown Road, talks about “GPS Navigation: From Map Databases to the Mass Market” on Thursday, April 20, at 8 p.m. at a meeting of the Princeton ACM and IEEE-Computer Society chapters at Sarnoff. For information, call Rebecca Mercuri at 609-587-1886 or Dennis Mancl at 908-582-7086.

Goodman believes that the success of GPS today in Europe and Japan is largely due to its chic as the “cool” technology, much like iPods in the United States.

But Goodman also attributes the rapid growth in these markets to their more flexible technology for an allied product — mobile phones. Because many GPS applications combine the navigational capabilities of GPS with the communications potential of wireless to create what are dubbed “location-based services,” the structure and pricing of mobile phone service is critical for the GPS market.

In the United States mobile operators make their money on voice plans, which for many years were tied to particular devices. As a result, for a long time Americans did not have the kinds of phones and devices that could accommodate GPS. They only had the phones their mobile companies gave them free every two years.

The European technology, however, enables users to switch from device to device with ease using a SIM card, which carries all voice plan, data, and account information. The SIM card effectively separates the device from the cell phone service, which in turn encourages users to update their devices more often. Consequently, says Goodman, in Europe consumers buy a new device every 6 to 7 months versus every 16 months in the United States.

Nonetheless, in the last couple of years Americans have been waking up to GPS technology, and Goodman is finding that he no longer has to explain GPS to nearly every person he meets at a trade show. Many consumers are beginning to realize that GPS will save them time — no more lengthy queries about the best ways to get places — and money — less gas wasted on getting lost.

GPS also saves enormously on frustration for those on the planet who find themselves completely befuddled by how to get from A to B. “When you’re on the road,” says Goodman, “the problem with paper maps or driving directions off the Web is that if you make a wrong turn or a road is mislabeled, there is no way to recalculate.” But a handy GPS device makes wrong turns a thing of the past by always providing a new optimized route to your destination.

Goodman talks about two categories of GPS applications:

Purely navigational GPS applications. Most of the products in this category help people find their way around. They are popular with drivers, hikers, and surveyors. “They are used to finding directions and points of interest in a static map database loaded onto a device,” says Goodman. These devices also support games such as “geocaching,” where people find and leave rewards in hidden “caches,” whose locations are posted on the Internet.

GPS receivers can also be great for sales people. With ALK’s CoPilot, they can enter up to 10 stops and hit an optimize button to determine the optimal route among their customers.

Location-based services (LBS). When GPS systems are combined with wireless communication between the GPS user and a back office or an Internet service, a number of business possibilities arise for location-based services (literally, services that depend on knowing a user’s location). These opportunities exist both in the consumer and the commercial markets.

Businesses, for example, can deliver ads to a GPS user who is passing a billboard for a product or service, and can offer reduced rates. Or restaurants can advertise to drivers in their vicinity and offer them discounts. GPS devices can also provide real-time weather information, which allows long-distance travelers to re-route and avoid bad weather.

Another potential LBS is real-time traffic monitoring, usually a subscription service. For the European and Australian markets, which have real-time traffic feeds, Goodman’s company already offers this service.

But for the U.S. market, ALK Technologies revisits the issue about every six months because of the 30-minute delay here in reporting traffic conditions. A route that may have been a good alternative a half hour ago could well add commuting time if the backup has eased. As an alternative to real-time traffic monitoring, ALK’s CoPilot has a detour button, which blocks off the next several miles of road and gives the user a route around the traffic jam.

One place that location-based devices have been a great business investment for ALK Technologies has been in the area of commercial trucking. Its Fleet Center application combines tracking of trucks or other vehicles by dispatchers with wireless communication between dispatchers and drivers. The dispatcher generates stops and sends them wirelessly to the truck’s navigation system, at which point the software optimizes the trucker’s route. The system may also include a service called “geo-sensing,” which sends a message to the client or the dispatcher when a truck enters a designated perimeter around the customer. The message might say, for example, “Your delivery is 10 minutes away.”

The return on investment for trucking companies is substantial and easy to quantify, says Goodman. “A truck is expensive to operate, and any mile saved, any efficiency, means a huge amount of money.” Other potential customers for this kind of system are real estate agents, repair services with 20 to 30 vans, taxicab companies, ambulance services, police and fire departments, and school buses — any fleet where location and proximity to events is important as well as communication with a back office.

Goodman grew up in Palm Springs, California, through middle school, and went to high school in North Rose, New York, near Rochester. His entry into the GPS arena was serendipitous. Graduating from Princeton University in 1999 with a degree in political economy, Goodman’s first job was a civil service gig with the Parks Department of New York City. When he decided that the economic possibilities afforded by the civil service were too limiting, he thought he should get in on the Internet boom, which was at its tail end at the time. Through a website, he happened on a job with ALK Technologies as an Internet marketing associate.

Although the boom didn’t last, his job did, and his responsibilities have been growing with the company and the GPS market. Last year he was marketing manager for North America for CoPilot products and is now working on development and production of solutions for corporate clients.

As with many technology-based industries, the only dependable quantity is change. Each year ALK Technologies updates its CoPilot product line, providing existing customers with a new version for $99. Updates include upgraded maps as well as any new services, the most recent being three-dimensional maps and the ability to link into Outlook E-mail and pull-down contact information.

New technologies are also being developed. An example is storage cards for map data, and the price for these devices has dropped dramatically. “Soon you will be able to buy a storage card and pop it into a phone, and it will have all the streets in the United States and a full navigation system,” says Goodman. A year ago these cards cost $200 and now they cost $45. At first users had to use their computers to put the maps on storage cards and devices, but soon the storage card will be part of the product.

Costs for the data plans and Internet access, essential to location-based systems, are also going down, from $100 per account for unlimited data down to $20 to $30 a month.

Finally, people are simply getting more comfortable with the technology. Earlier a company not only had to install and pay for systems, but also train people to use them.

According to an article in the April edition of GPS World, projected sales of in-vehicle GPS systems will grow from 4 million in 2006 to 30 million in 2020 and sales of mobile phones with GPS systems will grow from 200 million in 2006 to 2 billion in 2020. But for the GPS cell phone market to achieve that level of growth, it must overcome the problems of unreliability in urban canyons, inside structures, in high foliage areas, and in underground transportation systems.

As for the industry’s future, Goodman says, “We think it will take off in the next couple of years — in some fashion.” And as for ALK Technologies, he says: “We’re just trying to figure out which way that is.”

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