The business case for Sat Nav: Part 1

There is more to satellite navigation technology than route planning for consumers. The latest crop of standalone devices and software for PDAs offer a growing level of business functionality.

Satellite navigation devices (sat nav) have quickly established themselves as the must-have in-car gadget of the moment. In the last two years, sales of portable sat nav units have increased fivefold and there are now more than four million systems in use on the UK's roads.

As their popularity has increased, prices have tumbled. While early models cost 1,000 or more, quite advanced standalone units can now be found for less than 100 at supermarkets and car specialists such as Halfords.

We are also seeing a particular trend emerge, particularly among business users. Fleet managers and executives are increasingly opting for third-party add-on sat nav units over and above integrated factory fitted navigation systems.

The reasons for this are very simple - dedicated third-party sat nav units are smaller and neater than ever, ensuring that you can install them in a car without too much mess and fuss. It also means that you can easily upgrade as new models and improved features come along - not so simple when upgrading your sat nav involved replacing a harge part of a model-specific dashboard console. Finally, with theft of all types of sat nav units at an all time high, third party sat nav units can be removed from the car easily and taken with you, hopefully reducing the risk that a local yob will brick your car's windows in search of your device. Ease of removal also makes it far easier for the end user to perform firmware updates, map updates and additions, and the purchase and activation of additional premium services.

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Third party sat nav solutions started out as software applications that could be added to your PDA. Companies such as TomTom, ViaMichelin and Navman made their names providing such software and bundles including the necessary GPS receiver (the integral part of any sat nav solution). However, a PDA doubling up as a sat nav can be a messy solution, with cables going everywhere to connect GPS unit to PDA and both to the lighter socket for power. Even the use of Bluetooth to eliminate some of the cables still makes for a cumbersome two-device install.

So, manufacturers have turned their attentions to dedicated devices, many of which are little more than a cut down PDA on the inside, but which come out of the box pre-installed with software, with a built-in GPS receiver, and many with rechargeable batteries or even capable of running off a couple of AA batteries.

More than just navigation

Sat nav manufacturers have added a large arsenal of support services to both their software and their dedicated sat nav devices, to make the business traveller's life a bit easier and their journey more effective:

Weather:

Traffic management:

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Speed cameras:

Buddy lists: An interesting TomTom feature, and one that makes a lot of sense for businesses where sales staff, engineers and other mobile workers are regularly in the field in their cars. You can create instant message-like buddy lists of other TomTom device users, and have their location to you shown on your route map and via the buddy list, with the data relayed via your mobile phone data connection. This is particularly useful if, for example, you are a salesman on your way to a client and you need to know where the nearest engineer or delivery driver is in relation to you in order to help solve a problem.

Messaging: Again, making use of an associated mobile phone, messages can be relayed to and from the sat nav device. Both TomTom devices and PDAs using the CoPilot Live software can receive messages either from other users (such as TomTom buddy list users), or in the case of CoPilot and the fleet version of the TomTom software, from a central location or via a web page, meaning that important information such as appointment cancellations can be relayed to the mobile user without them needing to touch their phone, and with it risk a fine and penalty points.

Phone management: The heavy reliance on data-enabled Bluetooth mobile phones to provide the return path for these additional data services has one particular benefit for the user - the ability to use many dedicated sat nav devices as handsfree Bluetooth phone adapters. With recent changes in legislation, use of a phone without a suitable handsfree kit will incur not only a hefty fine but also three penalty points on your licence. Many sat nav users already have a handsfree kit in their cars and don't realise it. High-end units from the likes of TomTom, ViaMichelin, Garmin and Navman offer call handling, allowing you to answer and hang-up calls via on-screen controls on the sat nav (with audio routed through the speaker on the sat nav device and your voice usually picked up via a built-in or cable-based mic). Some models will also allow you to dial, and manage SMS messages.

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