The experiment has had six months to run its course. A year and a half ago, Apple added GPS hardware to the iPhone 3G, but left out the most obvious piece of software people were expecting: turn-by-turn guided maps. Then, in announcing the iPhone 3GS back in June, Apple helped TomTom debut the first of what would eventually become a large number of third-party turn-by-turn GPS solutions for the iPhone—in essence, programs that bypassed the device’s integrated Google Maps in favor of their own map and points of interest databases, adding realtime voice guidance, more or less accurate current position tracking, and automatic recalculation ability for missed or ignored turns. TomTom would eventually release its software in region-specific versions ranging from $50 to $140, provoking cries of “ripoff” from many users, but purchases from others. And in any case, numerous competitors soon followed: CoPilot Live, Navigon MobileNavigator, MotionX, and Magellan all have highly similar applications on the market with various pricing schemes and differentiating features. AT&T even got in on the action with a monthly subscription version that charges $10 per month directly to the user’s phone bill.
Our simple question for you, dear reader, is this: do you care?
We’re really on the fine edge of not caring any more. The high prices of most of these apps, combined with their very significant impact on the iPhone’s already unimpressive battery life, has led us to reluctantly conclude that iPhones are not going to be worthwhile turn-by-turn navigation devices until Apple makes significant improvements to the devices’ hardware and integrated mapping software. Better battery life? An enhanced Maps application with automated turn-by-turn and voice guidance features built in? Sign us up. But $80 or $100 for an app and then $100 or more for an in-car GPS cradle? For that sort of money, buying a dedicated portable GPS unit just makes more sense—you avoid the impact on the iPhone’s battery, get a larger screen, and don’t have to give up access to your other apps in the car while the GPS functionality is being used. (If you’re a passenger, of course.)
Most likely because these companies are still trying to feel out the potential market for their products, the iPhone navigation apps keep on coming out, anyway. The latest to arrive for testing is Magellan’s RoadMate 2010, which is currently available at an $80 price—supposedly a discount from its $100 normal price. As the screenshots here indicate, we’ve been testing it, and thus far, it feels more or less the same as the other apps out there, plus a slightly better speech system, a more limited collection of features, and a less locally comprehensive POI database. But, as we’ve learned, that might or might not change a month from now. Competing products have already gone through update after update, generally requiring time-consuming downloads and installation of huge 1+ Gigabyte applications, but also adding all sorts of features to the initial releases. The pace at which these apps are changing, generally for the better, is surprising—it’s obvious that companies are feeling compelled to keep improving their software, and that’s a good thing. Yet it’s obvious that these apps are only appealing to a small niche of iPhone owners. TomTom’s app is currently #2 on the App Store’s top grossing chart, but not even in the top 100 current sellers, a sign that TomTom is making a lot per download but not reaching anywhere near the number of people as, say, EA’s Monopoly. Cheaper apps are gathering significantly more traction than expensive ones.
So that’s why we’re asking today what you think. Do you want us to continue to make the effort to offer detailed reviews of these GPS applications and their car cradles, or do you feel that this particular genre of apps is generally just overpriced or ill-suited to iPhones as they currently stand, and thus additional coverage would only be a waste of our and your time? We’re really interested in your views, so please post them in the comments section below. Thanks!