Why Garmin's 796 Isn't An iPad Killer. And Vice Versa
I was riding my bicycle home from the gym Saturday morning, listening to a podcast on my iPhone about…Steve Jobs' famous introduction of the device in 2007. Just as it got to the part where Jobs was pulling the curtain, after explaining how the iPhone would keep us in constant touch with everything and everyone, my own iPhone rang with an incoming call, neatly interrupting the podcast. Well, I guess he was right about that. And a lot of other things, too.
And that may have prompted reader John Jones to write me to say he was glad our reviews of the new Garmin aera 796 weren't headlined with the phrase "iPad killer." Anyone who would write that is, in addition to being a graduate of Association of American Cliché Writers, not paying the slightest attention. Estimates vary, but Apple has sold something like 20 million iPads and with that kind of volume, just the rounding errors are enough to represent major penetration into the aviation market and indeed has.
On the other hand, those who called the iPad a Garmin killer might have been a little surprised to see the aera 796 appear last month. But one thing's for sure, the iPad impacted Garmin more than the other way around. When the GPSmap 696 appeared in 2008 it was, at $3295, the most expensive portable ever. Buyers snapped them up like candy and judging by the comments of two vendors who told me they sold out of aera 796s at AOPA Summit, the iPad hasn't exactly decimated Garmin. But do note that the 796 was introduced at $2495, fully $800 less (24 percent) for a device that has more capability and more sophistication, is smaller and lighter. Let's hear it for competition, no matter where it comes from.
I've exchanged e-mail with buyers who tell me that comparing the aera 796 and the iPad is apples and cumquats, forgive the pun. Were it true, you wouldn't see so many iPads flying around as plate readers, navigators and weather getters. The fact is, for contemporary buyers, the platform matters less than the price and function, and at a little over $800 for a top-of- the-line iPad, mega navigators like the aera 796 give up a lot of money for not that much functional difference.
Having used both for cockpit use, I strongly prefer the 796 because it's of a piece, not compromised by requiring third-part hardware to get weather, do GPS navigation or listen to XM radio. It's also not slightly too large nor too glary nor hobbled by occasionally buggy apps. But that doesn't mean I would necessarily buy one unless I intended a lot of use. As one correspondent said, "The 796 just blows away the iPad. I want one. But I can't afford $2500, so I'm sticking with my iPad." Somewhere between $800 and $2500 is a tipping point. Apple could care less about finding it, but Garmin may have to at some point.
The next big consumer sticking point will be for the cost of data—navigation, charts and plates. Some buyers are getting fed up with recurring costs of this information and I suspect Garmin will have to devise a creative solution. The app providers may or may not be impacted, but keep your ear to the ground about changes as the government tries to make a profit center out of public data.
Last, a word about Jobs' passing. Some of the coverage is comparing him to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, if not Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill. The podcast I was listening to called him "Moses in a turtleneck." A little around the bend perhaps, but he did manage to build the world's most valuable company. The combination of intellect, creativity and unswerving drive that Jobs represented doesn't come along often. Perhaps not even once a generation. Even then, the timing has to be perfect and his was. And if he didn't change the world, he sure had an impact on that tiny slice of it that lives in thousands of cockpits.