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

The last Switched On discussed the traffic-fighting prowess of the Dash Express, now available for only $299. Its leading ad hoc local information querying and traffic-finding capabilities represent the best potential to transform the portable navigation device from a product used primarily for unfamiliar terrain, to an everyday tool to expedite getting to point B.

When it debuted online at Amazon, it shared prime real estate with another transparently-connected consumer electronics device: the Amazon Kindle. But besides their completely divergent uses, the Dash carries more than the weight of a couple of extra radios in its cranium. The unfortunate part of the Dash Express is that the device's unusual size takes up a good chunk of windshield real estate and, of course, serves as an even larger advertisement to thieves.

Dash has the ability to remotely kill stolen Dash Expresses, but there is still the risk of a break-in. In many ways, Dash's service is a better match for an in-dash navigation unit such as the Pioneer AVIC series, but these expensive devices represent a small fraction of the navigation aftermarket.

However, Dash is not just competing with sleeker and cheaper unconnected devices or those using one-way information broadcast systems like MSN Direct. On one hand, it is also competing against GPS-enabled cell phones – inherently connected, omnipresent, and generally less expensive devices that often have their navigation features available on a per-diem basis. The user experience of smartphone navigation still isn't as good as it is on portable navigation devices, but feature phones with touch user interfaces on larger screens – such as the LG Voyager, Samsung Instinct and, of course, the iPhone 3G -- promise to narrow the gap. Wireless carriers could easily achieve the kinds of high volumes necessary to create a highly accurate traffic probe network.

The idea of a pioneering company playing right into the hands of subscription service providers conjures thoughts of a certain digital video recorder with an animated black tube-TV mascot. Both TiVo and Dash have drawn raves from early customers for their clean, easy user interfaces and functionality -- but also like TiVo, Dash's enemy is the "good enough" alternative. And while TiVo primarily competes against cable monopolies and captive suppliers, Dash could be kept up at night by wireless developers who can't turn on a location-aware smartphone these days without a fund springing up to create the next world-beating -- or world-mapping -- application.

That's not to say that Dash is heading for a crash. The company has a clear head start in delivering a valuable service, and it acknowledges that its larger play is as a service provider to other devices. If it can make its economics more appealing to a broad customer base, it could steer past what will surely become a heavily-trafficked space.

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


Switched On: Dash delivers open roads, open questions (Part 2)