Is iPhone/iPad Killing Stand-alone GPS?

I think so.

This morning, while going through the tweets in my Twitter stream that had arrived overnight, I stumbled upon a MacObserver article that discussed the iPhone becoming the top “camera” on Flickr. (I have my own opinions on that factoid, which I left as a comment on that post; it’s not a favorable commentary on Flickr users.) That post linked to a far more interesting one by Ted Landau titled “A Dozen Devices the iPhone is Killing.” In it, Ted discusses how features in the iPhone that duplicate those in stand-alone devices are making those devices redundant or simply not necessary.

GPS for Everyday Use

As I commented on that post, Ted is right on target with the GPS analysis. I’ve been using various GPS tracking apps on my iPhone for a while now and am super-impressed with the results. The first one I tried was the $2 GPSTrack app, which I wrote about here. Since then, I’ve also played with GPSLite, a free app that does much the same and more for free (which an interface I find a bit too complex for everyday use). My goals with apps like these is to create track logs and trip computer data for flights and for geotagging photos.

Although I’m not fond of turn-by-turn navigation, I know there are plenty of apps that do this, too. So, as Ted pointed out, in-car GPS navigation systems can also be replaced by an iPhone.

GPS for Flying

ForeFlight on iPhone

ForeFlight runs on my iPhone and includes not only GPS capabilities, but flight planning, weather, airport information, and more.

For pilots, a great app called ForeFlight, which works on both iPhone and iPad, offers better functionality than the $12,000 panel-mount Garmin GPS in my helicopter. Rather than view my location on a primitive screen display, I can see it on an actual aeronautical chart. I can also download charts and other information in advance so there’s no need to rely on 3G connectivity in flight. If I do have 3G connectivity, I can also get up-to-date weather information in flight. And although the iPhone screen is generally too small for my aging eyes to see the details, the same software works on my iPad — that screen size puts my panel mount system to shame. In fact, ForeFlight is the reason I’m updating to a G3 iPad 2 — that model includes a GPS; my original WiFi iPad does not.

Garmin is apparently trying to play catch-up with this functionality but I don’t think they’ll succeed. Why would someone pay thousands of dollars for a one-trick pony like a panel mount GPS when less than $700 will get you an iPad with GPS and Internet capabilities that can be updated on the fly and do so much more — for example, e-mail, Web browsing, ebook reader, and other apps? Best of all, the FAA is starting to accept apps like Foreflight as “electronic flight bags,” thus making traditionally required documents such as printed charts and flight plans unnecessary. (This is something I hope to blog about in more detail soon.)

And Another Thing…

ForeFlight on iPad

Here’s ForeFlight on my iPad. Although this iPad doesn’t have a GPS and can’t do accurate tracking, my iPad 2, which should arrive soon, will.

One thing Ted didn’t mention is the main reason why I don’t like carrying more devices than I have to: batteries and charging. When I go on the road, it seems that my “gadget kit” is filled with cables and charging devices. And spare batteries. What a pain in the butt! Wouldn’t it be nicer to carry just one cable and charger, perhaps with a DC adapter? While it’s true that running a GPS app on an iPhone, especially in tracking mode, sucks battery power more than almost anything else you’re likely to do with the phone, a DC charging device can usually remedy this. Heck, even my helicopter has a DC power port.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine why someone would buy a standalone GPS if they had an iPhone or another smartphone with equally good GPS capabilities. Can you think of a reason?

2 thoughts on “Is iPhone/iPad Killing Stand-alone GPS?

  1. I’m not a pilot, but some of my best friends are…

    I think there are a few things here. First, IIRC, there are restrictions on the use of ground-to-device communications. I believe that both the FCC and FAA have reasons for these limitations. Even so, when flying over many rural locations, you won’t have fast or reliable communications, so any kind of GPS needs to have the maps loaded directly on the device.

    More importantly, I see two reasons for the high cost of aircraft GPS. One is that the devices have a relatively small market potential, as compared to a car GPS device or a handheld iPhone/iPad device. So the R&D costs are spread among a relatively small customer base. Moving to a software platform like iPhone/iPad shifts the hardware R&D costs to Apple, which has a far bigger market to absorb these costs. The other issue is that – again, IIRC – there is a high cost for Garmin and their competitors to get FAA approval for in-aircraft devices. Again, this is passed to their relatively small customer base. Again, if the FAA approves devices like the iPad for in-aircraft use, then they simply need to certify the hardware once, and then certify navigation software, which should be cheaper.

    Economies of scale to the rescue.

    • Greg: I do understand WHY Garmin (and others) charge so much for their panel mount aviation GPSes. The cost of development and certification is high. No argument there.

      I think what I’m trying to point out is that before the iPad/iPhone and these great apps, we didn’t have a choice if we wanted to use a GPS designed for aviation use. We were locked in to either a panel mount system like mine or a handheld aviation model. Both are extremely expensive one-trick ponies — hell, even my husband’s handheld aviation GPS can’t load regular street maps or topo maps. The aviation navigation publications, which are updated sometimes as often as every monthly, are costly — it costs about $250/year to update my Garmin 420 and in order to do so, I have to pull a custom card, load up a program on a Windows PC (which I detest doing), plug the card into a custom USB device (another $169 to buy), get on the internet, download the software, and install it. It’s a royal pain in the ass.

      Now I’m seeing ForeFlight on my iPad, which (when I get my new one) will have a built-in GPS. For $75/year, I can download any US or Canadian chart, as well as publications like airport directories and airport diagrams. The files can be stored on the iPad and are updated monthly. Not only that, but I can use the charts to create and file flight plans, check the weather, get airport information, and so much more. AND, if I have a 3G connection in flight — which, with Verizon, I usually do — I can even get live updates to weather, etc.

      Keep in mind that I don’t do instrument flying, but even if I did, they have a version with precision approach plates, etc for another $75/year.

      What’s interesting about ForeFlight’s approach is that they don’t seem to be doing a thing to get it approved by the FAA. Instead, their customers are doing it. I spoke to my POI about the software for planning, filing, and storing flight plans electronically instead of keeping the mounds of paper I used to keep. He was fine with it. Not only does it make my life easier, but it makes my flight plans more accurate.

      While I’m not convinced that a 737 crew should be relying SOLELY on this kind of resource in flight, I think it’s a great and cost-effective alternative for the typical VFR pilot.

      I am convinced that Garmin and the others will be hurting as in-phone GPS use proliferates. People will simply stop buying stand-alone GPSes. With aviation, the situation will get worse because the savings are so much higher. Their market will shrink and they’ll have no alternative other than to raise prices to keep profits steady — thus making the situation even worse — or cut back on their product offerings to reduce production costs. In either case, it’ll be interesting to see how things develop over the next 3-5 years.