by Jean-Louis Gassée

The frustrations began with the (many) limitations of the Pioneer after-market navigation system in the Toyota I use while in France. I can deal with the inscrutable UI and the belligerent touch screen—“resistive technology”, indeed–but I need up-to-date maps (which are clearly antiquated on this device) and a precise reading of my speed. European roads combine baffling speed limit changes and an aggressive deployment of automated radar cameras. You don’t want to rely on your car’s imprecise speedometer if you want to drive just at—or maybe just over—the speed limit.

I need a second opinion.

A quick walk to the Louvre Apple Store and I have my prize, the TomTom GPS adapter for my iPhone, 99€. I download maps of Western Europe—including speed limits—from the App Store for $74.99 and, while I’m at it, I spend another $5.99 for one month of real-time, over-the-air traffic updates. The download is horribly slow and fails at first, even with a reliable WiFi connection, but I finally get it running. Onto the windshield. The suction cup performs its appointed function; the tilt and swivel is commendably ergonomic; there’s even a Bluetooth pairing feature for handsfree calls, indispensible in France where the gendarmes are touchy about touching a cell phone while driving. Sound quality is below par, but it’ll do. I’m in business.

(As an aside, I would have liked to have used Google’s free turn-by-turn app on my Droid X, but the Verizon network is incompatible with the European “GSM” standard.)

We head to the Basque country. The TomTom displays clean speed readings and warns me about impending speed traps. Yes, it occasionally gets confused and suggests a slower pace even as the road signs disagree, but…close enough. The Pioneer…forget it.

Things take a turn for the worse when we drive from France into Spain towards Bilbao—we want to take a look at the Guggenheim museum.

(Photo courtesy of Gaspar Serrano;

It’s a 100 km (60 mi.) drive from the no-stopping border (a pleasant affect of the EU) on the smooth E70. But just past San Sebastiàn both GPS units go crazy. They don’t know this freeway. I expect as much from the aging Pioneer unit, but what about the TomTom map I just downloaded? Not knowing about some rarely used back-country lane is one thing, getting lost around a major new European freeway? It’s not as if this is a state secret.

Approaching Bilbao, I try to get detailed directions to the Guggenheim. The TomTom app’s POIs (Points of Interest) finds it immediately. The Pioneer unit has never heard of the museum. Maybe it’s too new: After all, it did just open…13 years ago.

So the standalone TomTom wins? Unfortunately, there are problems.

On our way back to Paris, the iPhone GPS adapter starts acting up. It won’t charge the phone and the “This accessory is not made to work with iPhone” message blinks on and off at random times. I re-mate the Bluetooth and it disappears for an hour or so, but then it comes back on for good. I apply the official suggestions, no joy. It’s not the iPhone—I have a spare car charger lying around and verify that the iPhone isn’t on the fritz.

I call the TomTom Support number. They’re closed from Christmas until the New Year. “Try us again later.”

Still, it was a good trip, the Basque know how to live, the roads were clear, and I didn’t get flashed. But…

This got me thinking about the state and future of Navigation. Integrated navigation systems amount to a nice racket, an expensive option on most cars. We don’t have to have one, but we willingly pay $1,000 or more for the integration— no dangling wires, no unseemly windshield or dashboard protuberances to sully our pristine conveyances—and that’s probably enough to push a car sale into the black all by itself. A year or so later, we get a letter in the mail offering software/map updates ranging from $185 (Japanese) to $295 (Wehrmacht staff cars). They must have been watching Microsoft peddling Office updates.

During the Basque trip, I compared the TomTom (and, with flagging enthusiasm, the Pioneer), to Google Maps on my iPhone. You can guess what I saw: The E70 extension that mystified TomTom and Pioneer wasn’t a problem for Google. If you want turn-by-turn navigation with up-to-date maps—and you don’t want to get fleeced—get an Android phone with Google’s application.

Maintaining maps is a Sisyphean task. You need a lot of money, a lot of data, and a lot of people. How many companies can compete with Google on these three fronts?

Once upon a time, Nokia bought a mapping company called Navteq and TomTom bought TeleAtlas. Neither company has Google’s money or data or culture, and, above all, its goals. Google hires a battalion of contractors to minutely edit map legends and their translations. We’ve seen their odd-looking mapping vehicles that carry high-precision cameras, GPS, and the controversial but ultimately helpful WiFi SSID mapping units. (WiFi triangulation helps when a GPS signal isn’t available.)

We know Google’s strategy: They want to be everything to everyone, everywhere, all the time. This is the means to their advertising money pump (a.k.a. their business model). Google’s definition of “openness” is they want us to be always open to their stream of ads. Google Maps, a splendid product, full of clever nuances and constantly improved, is a strong component of that overall strategy.

What does this mean for the future of navigation devices?

Carmakers will continue to get an integration premium. Some, like BMW, already “sell” Google Maps. If you’re connected to the Google Cloud, the update problem disappears…the only button you have to press is “Refresh”. It’ll be interesting to see what Apple, Nokia, RIM, and Microsoft will do to up this ante.

One last anecdote.

On the way back to the airport, we’re in luck. We’re in the audience of a geeky cab driver. In addition to the cab company terminal, he has an iPhone, a TomTom, and a Coyote device. We exchange stories. He complains about the TomTom update process. Once a month, he has to connect it to his computer, a chancy, clunky experience. The Coyote unit is more sophisticated, it combines a GPS locator and a 3G link to the Cloud. (Apparently, there is some new combination between TomTom and Coyote. And I realize, too late, there is a Coyote iPhone app…) Pay a monthly fee and you get speed trap updates in real time. But the kicker is this: These updates are crowdsourced. Drivers notify the Coyote Systems of new traps and the updates spread instantly.

Cloud + Crowd = might.

We happen upon an accident. The driver punches a button on his cab’s terminal, sending time and location to the company’s servers and, as a side-effect, to other drivers.

Soon to be a Google Maps service?