Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dash Express - Finally a connected, crowd-sourced GPS

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I have had a GPS system for a little over a year. It is a MIP c310x and for $150 it does more than adequate a job of guiding me to my destinations. I have looked at the more expensive systems - like the ones from Garmin (Nuvi 360) and TomTom (Go 920) which retail for close to $600. I just found them an overkill. For the extra price you get spoken street names, maybe traffic information (you have to pay a monthly subscription) and maybe a wide screen display. But $450 just for those features - no thank you! I can do with out them.

From the first day I have had my GPS unit, I have wanted some features that I just did not find on any of the GPS units out there.

  1. Ability to download route information from the computer.
    Setting up a route to just one destination is fine using the touch-screen of a PND (Personal Navigation Device). But if you have to travel cross country, or if you wish to have multiple destinations - then the touch screen interface can become a pain. I have always wanted a way to define my route on my computer, where I have access to the Internet and I can perform research on the stops, etc and then have that route uploaded to the PND. There doesn't seem to be even one such PND out there that can accomplish this simple task.
  2. An Internet connected PND
    Many a times, I have found my self in a new neighborhood and I would want to find a certain establishment to visit. For example if I wanted to find a restaurant (maybe an Italian restaurant), current PNDs will show you a list of such locations based on the distance. But without a rating or review - how do you choose which one to go to. With WiFi becoming prevalent and ubiquitous, wouldn't it be nice if you could take your device to a hotspot and look up information about a point of interest (POI)? The PND could give you recommendations that are based not only on the distance but also on reviews. To take it a step further - the device could act like the iPhone - use a WiFi connection when available - otherwise connect via the cellular network to download that information.
  3. Share information about maps, roads and POIs
    Granted TomTom's MapShare can do some of that, but with so much social networking going on - their solution is pretty crippled. An ideal solution wouldn't just allow you to share road closure information, but also POIs, new roads, events, etc. Just about any information that could leverage location should be shareable. (TomTom can download road-closures, but you cannot directly share new road information - it is uploaded to TomTom and probably provided to you as a map update - for a price of course).

Enter Dash Express.

Dash Express seems to be the first PND that seems to have all of the capability that I always dreamed of wanting in my PND. I always wanted to build such a system - now I guess I don't have to smile_sad.

  1. Computer to PND Connectivity:
    The feature is called "Send2Car". Currently Dash Express does not seem to have the capability of defining your route on a mapping application like Google Maps or Virtual Earth, but you can use Send2Car to send addresses from your computer to the device. Even cooler, you can have someone else send you an address while you are on the road - Woof! Woof!
    The Dash - supports GeoRSS and KML (Getting your web content in the car!). So I don't see why it wont be possible to export your route from Google Maps as KML or use another tool to export it as GeoRSS and load the content on the Dash. Even if not possible in the first release - I am sure that the capability will be added very soon to the Dash.
  2. Traffic information:
    The traffic information that Dash provides you isn't the same information that you see in your other PNDs. The traffic information is not just from the traditional sources, Dash also uses information from other Dash users - called the Dash Driver Network. (More on this technology in a later post). And because Dash uses other Dash users to detect traffic changes - it can provide information about local streets in addition to high-ways. This technology is just not available via any of the other PNDs.

  3. An Internet connected device:
    The Dash supports both connecting to the Internet via WiFi and GPRS (cell phone) networks. Which means that while you are at home or near a HotSpot you could take advantage of the higher speed and band-width of WiFi and while you are on the road you could exchange information using the cellphone networks.
    It is this Internet connectivity that allows the Dash to break out of the mold of older PNDs. Which include:
    * Crowd-sourced traffic information from traditional sources as well as the Dash Driver Network.
    * Yahoo local search - and possibly ability to search using other services. (This makes the amount of POIs available to the device unlimited).
    * Send2Car - which allows you to send information from other Internet connected devices (traditional computers, cell-phones, etc) to the Dash.
    * MyDash - a portal for owners of the Dash. I am not clear about what this site provides - but you can possibly customize your Dash with specialized search buttons and maybe other customizations such as skins in the future.
    * AutoUpdate - which allows your Dash to always have the latest software and maps running on it.
    Because the Dash needs to use GPRS, there is a subscription component to owning the Dash. This varies from $9.99 to $12.99 depending on the plan you sign up for. (Compare that to TomTom's Plus Traffic service, which costs € 39.95 for 1 year subscription + costs for use of your mobile phone. - and gives you information only about the traffic as opposed to Dash - which gives you access to all the above features - value, value, value if I may say so)
  4. Open Content Platform:
    Though not touted as a feature on the product page itself - there is a lot of talk of the "open content platform" on the company's blog. This feature might be huge if it allows 3rd parties to either develop plug-ins that can be installed on the device and can then download location based data to the device or if the 3rd parties can publish data in a specific way, so that the Dash can take advantage of it (though one would be able to do that with the GeoRSS or KML formats).


And just like the expensive Garmins and TomToms, the Dash Express sports a wide screen. At a price of $599 (, I think there is almost no reason that one would still want to but one of the other PNDs that are available at the same price point.

What does all this mean: Since the early 1980s when the first PNDs debuted the devices have hardly changed (current position showed on built-in maps and routing). In my opinion the Dash Express is the biggest innovation seen in almost 20 years. Every one of its new features will definitely strike a chord with current and new PND customers. This, I am sure, in the near term will translate to many of the other PND manufactures dropping their prices so as to compete with the better feature set that Dash provides. In the long term many of these features (especially true Internet connectivity) will start appearing on the other PNDs. And as the currently unique features to the Dash start appearing on the other devices - the Dash will start becoming cheaper. I would also think that the subscription costs might get cheaper as more people purchase the device. Another price driver might be the fact that by dropping prices, more people will sign on to the Dash service. And as more people get tied into Dash's network - the more information the Dash will have for it's users, which will possibly keep Dash as one of the best services to stay with. (So the faster that Dash can get more people tied to its service, the harder its competitors will find to steal away those users).

So for all my gushing for the product - are there features I don't like: Yes.

  • The Dash uses Linux: I wish it were a Windows device - because those are typically easier to hack. The device I have runs on Windows PocketPc and the GPS software is called iGO. The device is highly hackable and hence highly customizable. I can turn my Mio into PDA, I can customize the skin to show exactly what information I want on the map. (None of these are easy to do as there are no tools that allow easy access to the settings - never the less it is possible). On the other hand the TomTom that I have - has Linux running - and even though you can get an OpenSource TomTom app on to it, it mediadoesn't seem to be as customizable as my Mio running iGO. Though this is not a huge issue - where there is software - hack-ability will followsmile_wink.
  • The form factor: The Dash is not flat and thin and so wont fit in your pocket. So in it's current avatar - you probably will find it a pain to take it out of your car and walk with it. (It would be nice if the wing section in the back would fold down for storage - v2.o maybe).
  • The price: at almost $600 - is still pretty expensive. It makes the WAF (wife acceptance factor) that much lower.
  • 3D View of map:  The one feature I cannot find anything about and which I think is extremely important in today's GPS navigation systems is a 3D view into the map. None of the screen shots, nor the specifications on the company's website talks about 3D maps. I think that 3D maps make it a lot more easier to follow a route and if it isn't there in this version - then I would most probably wait for a version on which it will be offered.

So will I be pre-ordering the device? Even though I would love to have one to test, my Xmas gifts for this year have already been bought and I typically wait for v2.0 of any device before I go out I buy them. So probably not yet.... but if the device has 3D maps and given that the cool factor is so high for me on this device - I just might.

Finally, here is a video of a presentation the company did at Web2.0 Summit:

And Gizmodo has a video where the device was taken for a spin in a car:

The videos shows you all the cool features I have written about: Send2Car, Search using Yahoo! and mashups using Zillow and CraigsList.

A very cool device indeed!

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