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

No one would ever accuse the Dash team of low self-esteem. "What the TV did for entertainment and the cell phone did for communication, Dash will do for driving." the company's Web site crows, A more accurate analogy for Dash, though, would be what TiVo did for television, that is, give consumers a greater degree of control over the media or information they're trying to manage in a contextually relevant way.

Dash plans to achieve its five-star impact rating via a portable GPS device. The portable GPS market shifted into high gear a few years ago when Magellan offered a hard disk inside of its Roadmate 700 units. Consumers no longer had to deal with cumbersome PC downloads; street-level maps of the whole country could be pre-loaded. A year later, a gigabyte or two of flash memory is enough to include street-level maps for the United States. Magellan representatives recently noted that it plans to switch completely from hard drives to flash in the next generation. The TomTom Go 910 can even hold maps of the U.S. and Europe for those leisurely drives across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, while the setup has now been simplified, portable navigation devices work with data that is frozen in tme. Most vendors update their maps once per year, which usually requires a return to the PC-based setup preloading sought to avoid. The static nature of GPS device data forces other limitations around delivering real-time information to the devices. As a result, it's sometimes difficult to trust these products' directions, and they tend to be used opportunistically, usually when you are going somewhere for the first time or are lost. To address these limitations and offer new capabilities, Dash is adding other new components to the portable GPS unit, a W-Fi radio and cellular modem.

One application of the technology eliminates the common annoyance of using these products – getting address data, generally from Web sites and e-mail programs, into the car. A browser plug-in, for example, enables you to send any address on the Web directly to your Dash unit, bypassing the cumbersome task of address entry. Dash can update maps as new information becomes available, avoiding PC-based updates and thus always keeping you up to date. While the effectiveness of this approach will of course depend on how responsive Dash is to changes, it will likely result in more accurate maps than the annual roll-up offered by most GPS vendors..The product will intelligently take advantage of increased bandwidth when Wi-Fi is available to download larger chunks of data.

Dash's two-way communication also enables a fresh approach to two core portable navigation device functions -- turn-by-turn directions and "points of interest," the databases of local businesses, parks, restaurants and so forth. Next week's Switched On will discuss how Dash plans to use its enhanced hardware, software and subscription service to turn thecar navigation device from a tool used only when a driver is lost or unfamiliar with the directions to an everyday tool that battles common driving frustrations.


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 fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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Switched On: Dash puts wireless in the driver's seat