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

Last week's Switched On explained how Dash Navigation's use of wireless technology intends to teach the GPS bloodhound some new tricks, but the company plans to primarily use its new design to tackle two of the hottest trends in portable navigation. Many GPS units now offer real-time traffic information based only on incident reporting, and the devices are not very intelligent about weighing the traffic in alternative routes to determine the fastest path. As a result, you could drive off of the freeway and into the fire. In contrast, Dash's traffic esimates are based on traffic flow. It begins with a historical database of what traffic speeds are like for sections of highways at specific times of the day.

Beyond that, Dash GPS units act as probes, reporting back on actual speed of cars on those segments. This clues in those who come after them about construction and other aberrations from traffic patterns. To do this effectively, though, Dash must take advantage of a network effect; the company estimates that a few thousand Dash units should provide good coverage of major roadways within large cities.

While the Dash unit includes a point of interest database, it can use its connectivity to query a local search engine such as those offered by Yahoo! and Google, leveraging the efficient if fallible semantic categorizations that these Web-based local search engines offer. Typing in practically any word will return listings, even if they are not in the title of the business. For example, typing "burrito" might return local Mexican restaurants that have them on the menu. Dash is also exploring RSS feeds -- a natural fit for this kind of device -- as well as enhanced business listings that might include, for example, hours of operation.



Aiming to expand the portable GPS market to those who don't know WAAS from a waypoint, Dash, while acknowledging that GPS user interfaces have improved in the past few years, asserts that its user interface will be simple and elegant, seamlessly managing wireless connections and avoiding esoterica such as satellite maps. But Dash's core hardware has interesting potential. Combining a fast-enough cellular radio with a Wi-Fi transmitter could conceivably turn the car into a roving hotspot. Passengers could play their Nintendo DSes at 65 miles per hour (or in traffic, in cities with only a few Dashes).

Alas, while Dash may incorporate three wireless technologies, it comes with strings attached -- a monthly service fee that, at minimum, covers the cost of the cellular connectivity, map updates, and managing the traffic and information services. While Dash hasn't announced pricing, it has implied a price of between $10 and $15 per month, a premium over what one would pay for most real-time traffic but competitive with an annual map update regimen. For example, TomTom charges about $150 for an annual map update of North America. In Dash's favor, those who drop the subscription still have access to basic GPS functionality.

In addition, Dash must drive through a growing crowd of competitors. Joining today's market leaders of Garmin, TomTom and Magellan are new portable offerings from in-dash vendors such as Alpine and Pioneer, analog driving brands such as Rand McNally and Michelin, and consumer electronics giants such as Sony and Philips and even PC giant HP. Unlike entertainment offerings that charge a monthly fee, Dash's service is designed to save time, not kill it. However, overcoming consumer resistance to subscriptions -- particularly those tied to a retail purchase -- will be Dash's toughest navigation challenge.



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.