The smartphone is already the Swiss Army knife of the digital age — a quick flick of the finger can transform it into a camcorder, Web browser, gaming device or music player. For many consumers, the Apple iPhone and its competitors are versatile enough that they can get by without separate cameras and laptops.
Now the smartphone is beginning to displace yet another standalone device — the GPS receiver — as a convenient way for drivers to get directions to unknown destinations.
More than 40 percent of all smartphone owners use their mobile devices to get turn-by-turn directions, said data from Compete, a Web analytics firm. For iPhone users, the figure is even higher, eclipsing 80 percent.
High-end phones like the BlackBerry from Research in Motion and the new Palm Pre increasingly come equipped with features common in portable navigational devices, like spacious touch-sensitive screens, intuitive menu designs and improved audio capabilities.
“The smartphone has made a lot of progress in the last year,” said Dominique Bonte, director of navigation research with ABI Research. “It gets very close to what people expect from the experience of the personal navigational device.”
Sales of traditional GPS units from companies like TomTom, Garmin and Magellan — a unit of MiTAC International Corp (神達) — have fallen sharply recently. During the first quarter, TomTom said it shipped 29 percent fewer GPS units compared with the same period of last year. Garmin said unit sales fell 13 percent in the first quarter compared with the previous year.
The stock prices of both companies have also plunged, with shares down more than 80 percent from their late 2007 peaks.
Meanwhile, shipments of smartphones in North America are expected to grow by 25 percent this year, with more than 80 percent of them equipped with GPS, according to ABI Research.
“It certainly gives personal navigation device makers a run for their money,” Bonte said.
He said many users still preferred the overall experience of dedicated GPS devices, which tap the Global Positioning System of satellites to determine locations and plot directions. GPS devices tend to render maps faster, because that data is typically stored on the unit rather than being refreshed through a mobile Web browser.
Smartphones, on the other hand, are susceptible to interruptions from incoming phone calls, and using the mapping features for a long time can chew through battery power. In addition, some smartphone GPS services require users to pay a monthly fee.
The list of the smartphone’s shortcomings is dwindling, however, as some of the latest navigation applications offer voice navigation and take advantage of the phone’s always-connected state to offer real-time traffic updates, directions to contacts in the phone’s address book and more.
Moreover, at US$100 to US$300 apiece after carrier subsidies, smartphones are competitively priced with GPS units, which average about US$177, according to research firm NPD Group.
Some tech-savvy smartphone owners find that the GPS capabilities of their phones are good enough for ordinary use.
Andrew DiMarcangelo, a 22-year-old marketer living in Marlton, New Jersey, who describes himself as “directionally challenged,” said that while he preferred the interface of his Garmin GPS device, using his iPhone is much more convenient.