Apple’s online App Store for the iPhone, with hundreds of programs available so far, has been a big hit since it opened July 11. But one thing that’s conspicuously absent is a navigation program with voice-based, turn-by-turn directions that utilizes the iPhone 3G’s new GPS receiver.
Such a program is likely some months away. Several of the “bigs” in the business — TomTom, Garmin and Magellan — are interested. But the three companies are reticent to say much about their plans, which still require Apple's blessing.
“We have made our navigation system run on the iPhone; it looks good and works very well,” said Dutch-based company TomTom, in a statement to msnbc.com. “We will have to look more closely to Apple’s strategy before we can say more about what kind of opportunities this will bring us.”
The company, which recently completed the purchase of digital mapmaker Tele Atlas, also noted in its statement that “the iPhone runs Google Maps and Tele Atlas is a supplier.”
Sounds promising, but it’s not definitive.
Garmin offers a $99-a-year “Garmin Mobile” plan for GPS-equipped smartphones, including certain models of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry and Samsung’s Blackjack. What about the iPhone?
“We’re always looking at new phone platforms to expand into for Garmin Mobile, but we don’t have any announcements regarding the iPhone at this time,” said Jessica Myers of Garmin International.
Magellan spokesman Raphel Finelli said the company does “not have immediate plans for this, but we are looking into it.”
Coming in months ahead
Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies market analysts, said “in talking to some of the guys in the software community, they believe we’ll see voice turn-by-turn directions within the next three months” for the iPhone, and certainly "before the end of the year.”
Last spring, Apple made a program available to outside developers to create software for the iPhone that could be downloaded from the App Store, which launched the same day the iPhone 3G went on sale.
Sal Dhanani, co-founder of TeleNav, a GPS software maker, said as soon as Apple announced its “Software Developer Kit,” the company obtained it and started working on a GPS program.
“Just like every other developer, we signed up for the program and downloaded the SDK, even though there were some specific clauses in the developer agreement that said you can’t write GPS navigation applications,” he said.
No GPS navigation applications? An Apple spokesman declined to comment, saying "Anything that is in the iPhone SDK agreement is still under NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and so not something we can comment on."
Analysts familiar with the company said they have not heard of such a restriction.
“When I spoke to Apple, they didn’t say such applications would be prohibited,” said Avi Greengart, Current Analysis’ research director for mobile devices. “What is clear is that there aren’t any available yet.”
Dhanani said TeleNav has proceeded ahead with its GPS program, TeleNav Navigator, for the iPhone, and found that it works quite well on the device “which is more than capable of providing an application like this,” he said. “The GPS worked really well.”
But the if and when is a different matter. It’s “hard to say, because Apple does have to update their agreement for navigation to happen,” he said. “We figured it’s a big category, navigation, and Apple will change their stance, because there’s going to be a lot of consumer demand for it."
It’s also possible that Apple itself may wind up providing such a navigation program, although the company did not respond to a question about that.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple has its own app in development,” said Greengart of Current Analysis.
Another firm, ABI Research, also mentioned the idea in a company blog.
“Navigation applications have been held off by Apple up to now, presumably because they want to reap the profits of this killer application themselves,” wrote Dominique Bonte, a principal analyst for the company.
“And indeed, the iPhone has a sufficiently large touch screen to be able to compete with Personal Navigation Devices.”
The App Store has many location-based service programs, such as WHERE and Where To?, that guide users to nearby services, such as gas or restaurants.
Some of them, such as WHERE and iWant, are free; others are nominal amounts. Where To?, for example, is $2.99.
Many of the programs are extremely useful. But none of them are the GPS programs some consumers may have envisioned when they bought the new iPhone.
“What is important especially with navigation in driving is the voice, turn-by-turn ability,” said Bajarin of Creative Strategies. “It’s just a matter of time before that’s available on the iPhone.”