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The Engadget Interview: Christian Bubenheim, general manager, Magellan Consumer Products

Peter Rojas
For this week's Engadget Interview, veteran journalist J.D. Lasica spoke with Christian Bubenheim, vice president and general manager, Thales' Magellan Consumer Products Business about portable GPS systems, how you use them in the wild, and how to find your car in Shea Stadium's parking lot.

Why don't you give us the nickel tour of Thales and Magellan?

Thales Navigation is the result of four GPS companies that came together over the past few years. The business really comprises three business units: Magellan on the consumer side, which includes outdoor handheld products and vehicle navigation; on the professional side we service survey and GIS or mapping customers, and on the OEM side selling into the automotive industry, avionics, lots of consumer electronics providers, and we do that through lots of different chipsets and black-box products. We have 13 locations around the world, about 650 employees, and we are sold through more than 20,000 retail locations.

Lay out for me the landscape for GPS devices. How big is this marketplace? Have we reached a tipping point yet where GPS navigation is becoming a mainstream activity?

The technology of GPS has been around for a long time. From a consumer standpoint, we definitely have reached a tipping point in the area of vehicle navigation. From region to region, the adoption rates and penetration are different. The Japanese market is the most advanced in vehicle navigation, followed by the European market and then, last, with a couple of years to catch up, is the North American market.

The tipping point where we see the biggest growth in vehicle navigation has been portable aftermarket products. Those are dedicated devices like the Magellan RoadMate that the consumer can buy in a consumer electronics outlet or club warehouse, put into his car and get up and running very quickly. It's usually a windshield installation or dashboard mount, but there's no professional installation necessary, you just turn it on and go.

That market is doubling year over year. We're the market leader in the North American market with the RoadMate series.

The other segment on the GPS side is outdoor recreation. Within that there's a lot of different segments. A big one is marine. Another is outdoor enthusiasts, people who like to hunt, hike, fish, trek, bicycle. And the third in this area is athletic products, with GPS usually coming in a large type of watch. Those are just now starting to emerge as an additional category.

So your RoadMate series is for vehicle navigation, and your eXplorist, Meridian and Sportrak series are for outdoor enthusiasts.

Right. Those are classic outdoor products. They're rugged, waterproof, durable, and designed to show the outdoor consumer a view of different maps, charts, topographies. You can see fishing hotspots if you're in a boat in a lake.

They also allow an application called outdoor route, a navigation product that lets you put in an address and you'll get the same basic turn-by-turn guidance as you'd get with a vehicle navigation product.

How many satellites are in the network?

The satellite piece is a very easy one. There's one GPS network we use from the U.S. military for civilian use. A second satellite system is under development in Europe. It's called Galileo and will launch its first satellites in a couple of years. As part of Thales Group we're very involved in the development of the receivers that will use Galileo. Having a second system in Europe promises to provide more reliability and accuracy in Europe.

There are 24 satellites in the network. The device should see a minimum of two satellites to get the first fix, and a third to pinpoint the location, and then you can also get the altitude of where you are.

How accurately do the GPS devices pinpoint your location?

We support an augmented GPS system that is accurate to within one meter, or three feet.

What percentage of customers use Magellan handhelds in the car?

More than 80 percent of our customers use the devices in their cars, with or without a turn-by-turn application. Some of them use it as a moving map, if you will.

Do you have any partnerships with car manufacturers yet?

The most important partnership we have is the Hertz NeverLost product we're developing with Hertz.

For the novice, explain how GPS auto navigation works.

Well, if you're using a Magellan RoadMate, you literally turn it on and go. All the maps are preloaded on the Magellan RoadMate 700 and 760 and there are preloaded SD cards for the Magellan RoadMate 300. The customer takes the product, puts it in their car, turns it on, and the GPS pinpoints your location. Then you can enter a destination, or see a nearby restaurant or hotel, or any of the 7 million points of interest we supply with the map database.

If you're heading to an address, you type in the city and street and number, and you choose how you'd like to get there, by freeways, no toll roads, or country roads, and the system calculates every turn that's necessary to get you there. It then gives you voice prompts whenever a maneuver is necessary. It shows you the map while it's doing that. Our latest device, the Magellan RoadMate 760, goes a step further. It tells the driver a spoken street name. It'll say, "Right turn in 100 yards — Smith Avenue." It also gives you a choice to find an alternate route when you run into a traffic jam or detour.

But it doesn't currently scan the roads to tell you if there's a traffic jam up ahead, right?

That's coming right now. It's been quite popular in Europe for some time. In the U.S., the live traffic information services are becoming available. With the Magellan RoadMate 760, we offer an external live traffic receiver that integrates that information into the car's navigation unit. If there's an accident or road obstruction ahead, that is factored into the road calculations.

I could use one of those. You also get a choice between looking at a top-down map or a 3D videogame-style view?

In our case, we have the top-down view and what we call True View. As the turn comes up, the turn gets shown in a three-dimensional map with a large arrow to show the angle of the turn.

Did you see the article in Wednesday's Slate comparing the GPS devices of five leading manufacturers? The good news is that Magellan's RoadMate won the best UI category. The bad news is that it finished in the middle of the pack overall.

One of the key advantages we have with the RoadMate product is the ease of use. That user interface has been developed over many years and fine-tuned and optimized. Millions of users by now have used Hertz's Neverlost system. If you have a system that anyone in a rental car can use, you get a lot of exposure and a lot of user experience to feed into further developing the product. It's definitely a strength that we have.

Who's currently the GPS device market leader — Garmin?

It varies by region and product category. In the North American market, we have by far the market leadership in vehicle navigation with a 53 percent share, with Garmin number two. In the outdoor category, Garmin has the leading market position, and we have between 25 and 35 percent of the market. In Europe, there's another player, TomTom, that has the leading market position in vehicle navigation.

One of your competitors, Go, offers John Cleese's voice for your navigational enjoyment for 12 bucks. How about Paris Hilton, Homer Simpson, or Clint Eastwood saying, "Turn right here, or do you feel lucky, punk?"

We've looked into these options. Technology-wise, it can be done and I think it's pretty neat to have downloadable voices. Does it make business sense though? Our research shows only a very small number of customers would be willing to pay 12 dollars for a celebrity voice to guide them. Instead, they're saying, get the basics right. I want to make sure I have the most accurate maps, the best turn-by-turn guidance, the best detouring around traffic jams. That's where they see the most value.

What other things can GPS sports devices do for you?

GPS systems allow databases to be used in addition to guidance or standard navigation. This is most useful when you talk about tides and currents or moon phases. Someone using the device on a boat as they approach a harbor can determine the tides.

How about using a GPS device as a star map, to tell you the position of the constellations in the night sky?

I believe there's a telescope company that is doing that relating to the position of the stars in the firmament. Very minor market there.

Have you heard any interesting stories about people using Magellan to locate a loved one, or to find civilization after they've been lost in the wild?

We're heard from military personnel in the Middle East who told us, 'Your device really helped me get through a crisis situation.' There are fun stories like the fellow who lost his GPS system on a boat in New York, and it got picked up six months later by someone off the coast of Florida. The batteries were low, but the system was still working.

We got a letter just this week from a customer who lives in a rural area. There was a motorcycle accident out there with fire and rescue on the scene. They called for a helicopter and they were gonna use her front yard as a transfer site. The firemen were unable to get a lock on the satellite with their own GPS unit, so she ran into the house, got her Magellan, and within a few minutes had the GPS coordinates so they could get the helicopter in and get the guy critical medical attention.

How would Magellan devices be useful for us city slickers?

In addition to the map, there's also a Point of Interest database pointing out restaurants, bars, museums, hotels, parks, parking lots. Also, when you park your car, you can leave a marker to remember where your car is. You can then have the system guide you back to your car.

That would come in handy at Shea Stadium!


What Magellan GPS devices do you personally use?

Sure, that's part of the fun. Me and my wife have them in our cars, and when we have guests, I do the classic beta testing with those who've never used the product before. I've also used them boating, and when I go skiing to find out what the altitude is on the slopes.

The RoadMate 760 costs $1,100 — that's a pretty penny. Who are you targeting at that price point?

We now start some of our products for as low as $99 for the eXplorist 100, for someone who just wants basic GPS functionality. It's $499 for the Magellan RoadMate 300. With more features and functionalities, and pre-loaded hard drive so the product is ready to go out of the box, the Magellan RoadMate 760 is priced at $1,100. But the price range is very wide. It depends on what kind of map storage you want, the kind of screen, features, color vs. monochrome.

What does the future hold in store for GPS devices? Does Magellan have any plans to extend beyond GPS into other markets or services?

There are a couple of things that will emerge over the next couple of years. The main one is the classic consumer electronics drivers: As volume goes up, cost goes down, innovation becomes more rapid. The price for GPS chips is dropping dramatically. All mobile devices will be able to integrate GPS very cost-efficiently. Cell phones will be the most important driver of GPS adoption over the next couple of years. As the carriers roll out services and provide information based on location, that will be a major new segment that is opening up.

J.D. Lasica's new book about the digital media revolution is Darknet : Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation (Wiley & Sons).

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