EXCLUSIVE: TomTom looks to apps to fight off Google and Nokia

Your phone's most definitely got one, your printer might, and soon your GPS device will too. That's the hope of Harold Goddijn, the CEO of TomTom who has laid out plans for the company to embrace the "app store" approach and offer apps to its customers by the end of the year. 

"What is happening here is a break from the past. We have a great infrastructure, but in 2009 we decided it wasn't good enough moving forward", says Goddijn. "We decided to break the code and move on to new architecture both on the device and the backend".

If successful, the new webkit based operating system as well as the introduction of new technologies in all its new devices over the coming months will "create a platform for great innovation for both the consumer and automotive market", says the CEO confident of the new plans.

Those plans don't just mean a refresh of the current software and the introduction of new hardware models, but a major overhaul of how TomTom offers its services and delivers its navigation software. In a bid to bring new technologies to the market as it desperately tries to offer consumers something different and compelling over free alternatives, such as Nokia's Ovi Maps and Google's Google Map Navigation software.

Following Apple, BlackBerry, and others in the "mobile" space TomTom will be the latest player to introduce an app store to its customers, the company has confirmed.

Expected sometime in 2010, although Goddijn wouldn't officially be drawn on a date, the new app store will play on the move to the webkit platform and allow a greater emphasis on providing the TomTom experience elsewhere, other than just dedicated devices like the newly launched TomTom Go Live 1000.

"It [the move to webkit] works in two ways, applications that are developed for other platforms are really easy to port to our platform, and secondly it allows us to port our technology elsewhere too for other devices, most importantly to the automotive industry", says Goddijn putting out his stance on the new approach.

Ever since Apple introduced its App store 2 years ago, a number of manufacturers from phone makers to printer companies have been keen to "get in" on the app game. Now it seems that TomTom is looking to emulate that approach, with the urge to create its own app store and offer third party developers a chance to get their products to TomTom customers on the road.

In a separate presentation, and further talking to the company's CTO, the company is already evangelising how apps like Wikipedia, tourist guides like Time Out and others, such as piste maps, might help people get a better idea of where they are going. 

More exciting, however, is the possibility of an augmented reality offering. Although Goddjin confirmed that the company was looking at the possibility of adding augmented reality in to the mix, the niche technology isn't a major objective for them. That doesn't, says the CEO, mean that a third party developer couldn't create something in the future for an app store for customers to download.

Talk on the event floor suggests a launch as early as this year, but Goddijn is cagey as to when the new app store will officially launch, clearly not wanting to create false hope or deadlines that will be missed:

"I don't want to comment on a certain date, but it's one of our first priorities to get the infrastructure right".

So does a car navigation company really need an app store? Goddjin thinks so:

"It is less critical for us than say a phone maker, because the variety of information you want to have when you're on the move is greater than when you are driving. When you are driving you are driving", says Goddjin. "Very few people sit in a car and say what do I want to do now. It is important nevertheless. It is important to get the depth and breadth of more applications, more content, more flexibility for both our consumer business and our automotive business".

But it's not just the platform, the buzz word de jour, that is part of the company's move to stay ahead of the game, hardware is taking centre stage too as it has to fight against mobile phones with large touchscreens for its place in the market.

For the latest model, the TomTom Go Live 1000, that means a new 4.3-inch capacitive touchscreen display (a first for TomTom), a slimmer design, and more processing power inside.

In a drive to keep costs down, the company has opted for the ARM 11 500Mhz processor and a separate Broadcom GPS chip rather than a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor that promises to do it all. 

"It's about delivering to our customers solutions that work rather than trying to grab market share", the company's CTO told Pocket-lint in a separate interview.

The TomTom Go Live 1000 will be the first of many devices over the coming months and years that sports the new approach with the company acknowledging that the plan is to shift all new offerings to the new platform.

"It is obvious that we want to roll this through the product range as quickly as we can. It will take time. But it is clearly the way we are going", Goddjin tells us clearly, hoping to get the new offering into as many hands as possible and emulate the 45 million devices already sold to date.

But selling PNDs in what many see as a shrinking market is tough work and so in the third move to stave off threats from the mobile phone makers, TomTom is attempting to drive its way into cars even more than it already has.

Already having major content deals with the likes of Volkswagen, BMW, Ford and Daimler, TomTom clearly hopes that it can leverage those relationships to get its platform rolling out quickly to more people beyond those willing to pay for a dedicated personal navigation device (PND), rather than using their phone's free mapping alternative.

"We want to create a platform in the car and Webkit is an important element to that dream", says Goddjin.

TomTom says that it will be able to allow car makers to customise the UI, use webkit to provide a "great" programming environment that makes it easier to talk to the other systems of the car (like the heating or air conditioning), as well as deliver over the air (OTA) updates thanks to built-in connectivity (ie a SIM card), something that will no doubt appeal to car makers, normally slow to implement new technologies in the latest models.  

Built-in car unit systems, cloud based services, a cross platform operating system, can the PDN really last that much longer? Goddjin says yes:

"The beauty of something that is fit for purpose will continue to attract a lot of people into the category... we aren't at a point where pure cloud computing devices can take over just yet. The reliability of connectivity isn't there. The cost of always-on connectivity is still too high and those together compromise the effectiveness of the product. However, I believe that a hybrid model that features a large proportion of data on the device, that will work independently of network coverage, but that for live data you use the cloud to its best advantage will be very popular for years to come".



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