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Switched On: Get the show on the road


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Digital convergence makes for some strange bedfellows; these often turn out to be little more than a one-thing fling. Last year, for example, Olympus fumbled after spending big on a SuperBowl ad with the m:Robe 500, an attractive hard disk-based digital music and photo display device with a camera unworthy of the company's heritage. The m:Robe 500 could not play video, but its large screen indicated a dilemma common to many products in this emerging category. Go too small and you have an unsatisfying visual experience. Design a player too large and you lose portability.

The most successful digital portable video player to date has been Apple's iPod with video, the apologetic name of which serves as evidence that Apple was unwilling to compromise the device's appealing size for a very large screen. But Apple's competitors have been missing the mark in terms of targeting the video player at a market that has embraced wisps of products such as the iPod nano. Forget the jogger; the driver is a better target for portable video.

As the portable audio market has been adding such features as PIMs, podcasts, and pictures, the portable GPS market has also been adding functionality while shrinking size and prices. As a result, the traditional boundaries between automotive and personal navigation products is starting to blur and the product category has attracted domestic interest from Sony, JVC, and other consumer electronics companies.

Indeed, it has been possible to bring together these functions for years through those perennial jacks-of-all-trades, PDAs. Garmin has tried several GPS / PDA hybrids and Palm has pushed a GPS it as a key accessory for its abstractly named LifeDrive Mobile Manager. But GPS customers have shown a preference for dedicated devices. Probably the best example of this convergence today is the Garmin nuvi. This popular, sleek navigation product includes a photo viewer and MP3 and Audible audiobook support as well as some travel-friendly features such as a world travel clock and currency and measurement converters. The nuvi is pricey, but other newcomers to the market like Korea's FineDigital are also embracing the slim portable GPS form factor.

While the nuvi 300's screen isn't large compared to other GPS devices and lacks the hard disk of competitors from Magellan and Lowrence, its screen is larger than that of the video iPod's and has the same resolution. What would be unthinkable for hanging around your neck while jogging is a better form factor for watching videos or looking at navigation maps, but manufacturers might struggle in marketing a product that has two distinct usage scenarios: in the car and outside of it.

On the surface, combining video and GPS may seem like creating a Frankendevice. The last thing anyone wants to encourage is distracted driving, but some simple electronics could prevent video on the main screen while attached to a suction mount. Besides, several of today's DVD-based in-dash GPS systems such as those from Pioneer already support DVD video for delivery to passengers' screens. As shrinking storage prices make such products more practical, portable GPS systems may do the same using high-speed wireless technologies such as ultra wideband.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at

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