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Satellites high above the earth are being used to route pedicabs, monitor high-value business assets in remote locations, and pinpoint millions of Fidos, Fluffies and endangered fish.
In-console global positioning system (GPS) navigation displays are the hot upgrade for the well-wheeled. But more drivers, boaters and walkers are choosing cheaper handheld navigators and PDA add-on cards-even GPS-enabled wristwatches. Directions and real-time traffic reports may soon be as common to cell phones as digital cameras.
GPS has arrived: Equipment sales have doubled since 2000, to $15 billion this year, and could grow to $22 billion by 2008, says market research firm ABI Research. More than just sky-high mile markers, the government's GPS satellites can improve asset security, expense tracking and cost control-with location-based marketing, m-commerce (mobile commerce) and supply chain applications in the wings.
Entrepreneurs are the pathfinders. John Stull, 41, president of Global Tracking Communications in Murietta, California, has a growing business helping companies track outbound employees and vehicles. As his Web site says: "If you could ride in each of your vehicles every day, your people would be more conscious of direct routes, realistic lunches and break hours nearer to the job, less personal usage . . ." And the Web site breaks down the cost savings from a GPS ride-along program.
GPS is one of several technologies used by Ira Fefferman, president of Ballpark Pedicabs to automate checking out and routing bicycles from his downtown San Diego depot. He can pinpoint the start/stop times, movements and locations of his pedicabs, which cost several thousand dollars each. Fefferman, 39, relies on Televigation's TeleNavTrack service to gather data from GPS-equipped Nextel phones, which have a Direct-Connect feature for dispatch, directions and emergencies. Fefferman currently travels between San Diego and his home in Bend, Oregon, to run the business.
Large sales, service and delivery fleets dialed into the least-cost routing and expense-tracking benefits of GPS long ago. As equipment prices soften and services multiply, GPS is looking good to individuals and growing businesses, too, says Stull.
If you own a late-model automobile-particularly a luxury one-you're already piloting a computer with hubcaps. Onboard navigation systems tap that brain for speed, direction and other data that enhance visual and audio directions. This can add $1,500 to $2,500 to the sticker price of your luxury ride, and even less-elegant versions cost $1,000 to $2,000 in aftermarket auto channels.
A cheaper way to go is a handheld navigator like the Magellan RoadMate or the Garmin StreetPilot, bought online. They mount easily on a dashboard, use your cigarette lighter for power, and can be moved between vehicles. Basic models start at about $100. For $1,000, you can get a hard-drive-equipped model with onboard maps and the computing power of a PDA.
If you've got a PDA, laptop or smartphone, you can turn it into a GPS navigator. Pharos Science & Applications specializes in adding GPS mapping to Windows Pocket PCs using CompactFlash and SDIO-card-based receivers (for $190 to $350, all prices street). Palm Tungsten or Zire users can buy a $299 GPS Navigator from PalmOne that communicates with their handhelds via Bluetooth, while Palm m500 series users can get a Magellan GPS Companion attachment for their handhelds for about $200.
Device prices usually relate to computing power and the quality of audio and visual navigation cues. There's already a broad, complex menu of downloadable information and services available-everything from topo maps to barometric pressure updates. One with broad appeal is Pharos' Smart Navigator, which broadcasts real-time accident and traffic flow data to commuter smartphones for only $5 a month. So far, it's only available in three dozen metropolitan areas, where transportation departments collect freeway data from sensors and cameras.
What would really kick GPS into high gear, says Frank Viquez, director of automotive research for ABI in Oyster Bay, New York, is if most cellular carriers adopt it as their e-911 emergency locator of choice. That would drive down GPS component costs even faster and make 100 million cell phone users potential customers for location-based services, such as finding phone buddies and multiplayer gaming or the longtime dream of alternative marketers: location-based advertising. Thorny privacy issues need to be resolved before that opportunity ripens.
For now, business services like TeleNavTrack offer immediate payback-not just dispatching and turn-by-turn navigation, but also a precise record of speeds, distances and paths traveled by company vehicles, exportable to employee time sheets, expense reports, vehicle service records or customer invoices. And GPS long-distance tracking will soon be combined with RFID short-distance tracking. What impact would perfect information about each SKU and package have on your just-in-time inventory plans?
is Entrepreneur's technology editor