MiTAC puts the heat on Navman R&D division

Navman in Auckland is now focused on software development

Navman’s Auckland software development team is responding to pressure to deliver from its new owner, Taiwan-based manufacturer MiTAC.

Since MiTAC purchased Navman’s personal navigation device (PND) operations from US boatbuilder Brunswick last year, pressure on the Auckland software team has grown, says Navman general manager Andrew Blakey.

Compared to Brunswick, MiTAC puts more pressure on Navman to deliver, expecting more features in a shorter timeframe, says Blakey. But he sees this as a positive thing.

“It has driven us to deliver more than we thought possible,” he says.

Navman’s S-series device, for instance, is a result of two years of work in collaboration with global design company IDEO.

Under Brunswick, Navman took care of the whole production cycle, from design to hardware and software. MiTAC was then a hardware subcontractor, says Blakey. Today, MiTAC does design and hardware and Navman, in Auckland — now a smaller portion of the large MiTAC empire — is focused on software.

When MiTAC acquired the division, it chose not to take over the company’s Christchurch office, which has since been closed down. But it kept the 80-plus research and development staff in Auckland.

The changes have been positive, says Blakey, as they resulted in a more focused operation and self-improvement.

With a strong focus on usability, Navman and IDEO looked at the fundamental shifts in navigation and investigated what users really want out of their devices.

The result was a device that has a “glide” touch interface, an improved menu structure and easy keyword search functionality, says Blakey. Users can search for, for example, “petrol” and “Northcote” and the engine will combine these keywords and come up with a list of suggestions.

A lot of work has also gone into the design. The slim and sleek brushed aluminium device is a lot more looks-conscious than its predecessors.

But the biggest challenge is to create a device that is user-friendly, says Blakey. Navman is working closely with usability companies, such as local company Optimal Usability, to keep improving in this area.

The days of piling on new features with every new release are coming to an end, he says. “It is becoming clear from research that what people want is an easy-to-use device.”

Integration with public transport, the ability to use the device for navigation on foot, and taking fuel economy into account are examples of features that are becoming more important.

One of challenges for Blakey is finding good staff. The company actively recruits skilled workers from overseas, which has resulted in a multicultural workforce. The company holds an annual event — Bite of Navman — to celebrate the different cultures within the company, he says. Staff cook dishes from their home countries and the whole company gets together for a multicultural meal and drinks.

Required skills are strong algorithmic skills, C++ skills for the user-interface, and database and data processing skills for building data processing tools, says Blakey.

Another challenge is short development cycles — typically cycles are under six months, he says. To deal with quick turnarounds, the company is primarily looking for experienced people who can be up and running and writing code quickly, he says.

Competition in the PND space is intense, says Blakey. Navman still maintains a reasonably strong foothold in the European market, where it had its initial successes, he says. While Navman is “toe to toe” with TomTom in Australia and New Zealand, the US market is difficult to get into, he says.

In the US market, however, Navman devices will be among the first to use a new embedded operating system from Microsoft for portable devices using GPS.

Windows Embedded NavReady 2009 includes features to make devices web-friendly, as well as providing local information via ties to FM broadcasting, says Blakey.

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