July 11, 2008 is a date that will live in infamy for many manufacturers. That's the day that Apple launched its acclaimed App Store, and with it, a slew of mobile applications chock-full of productivity, entertainment, and social networking features.
Since then, the market for apps has exploded, sending developers scrambling to meet consumer demand with new applications for Apple, Android, Blackberry, and other devices. And with every new bit of software that hits the mobile marketplace, the makers of gadgets like HD radios and GPS systems die a little inside, because the data and features that once belonged to them exclusively are being made available to anyone with a smartphone -- often, for free.
Which brings us to TomTom. The Dutch manufacturer of dashtop satnav devices and its Swiss competitor, Garmin, have been on the defensive since apps like Google Maps and Trapster hit the scene. The latter don't have to worry about hardware design, development, testing, and manufacture; their developers just bang out some code and upload it to the web. If there's a glitch, they post an update. TomTom et al don't have that luxury. And so, they've been playing catch-up -- and now, it's pretty clear that they've lost control of the technological conversation.
Apps like Waze were built on the back of social media, using ad hoc social networks to flesh out their maps and satnav systems. TomTom's latest update has finally added similar features, allowing users to share their info about map errors, road closures, and such. There are a couple of problems, though.
First, the TomTom app only checks for updates once a week (though users can force a manual update whenever they like). We like the fact that users can opt out of updates -- that's convenient when you're in a hurry and don't have time to wait for a download over, say, AT&T -- but it's not so great for folks who want the latest driving info always at their fingertips.
There's also the price: TomTom apps start at $39.99 on the iPhone, and they're more if you need additional maps for Canada, Mexico, or that European road trip. Sure, TomTom provides real-time traffic, which is nifty, but so do most of the other apps we've mentioned. And unlike TomTom, they're typically free.
As hardware becomes less relevant thanks to the increasing adoption of smartphones, manufacturers like TomTom are going to have a tougher time staying ahead of the curve -- and as much as we like Homer Simpson and Darth Vader, we don't think voice packs are going to cut the mustard. It would be sad to see a company as great as TomTom hit the skids, but as we've said before, if a company isn't evolving, it's dying.Parting thought: it's ironic that one of the most proprietary developers on the planet -- Apple -- would put a game-changing tool like the mobile app in the hands of average Joes and Janes. Was that Steve Jobs' intention, or have tinkerers and developers taken apps to a place no one really dreamed of?