TomTom NV beat analysts' expectations when it reported fourth-quarter earnings last week, but the Amsterdam navigation company's future course is far from set.
Of recent concern, its core business of personal navigation devices, or PNDs, has been battered by a price war. More threatening to the company's long-term growth is that PNDs, which account for 75% of TomTom's earnings, are being supplanted by new platforms and devices, including in-car systems and mobile phones.
TomTom's best hope may lie in shoring up the underlying mapping data it owns as a result of its acquisition of Tele Atlas, which TomTom bought for $4.3 billion in 2008 in a heated auction. Though it went on to incur a $929 million impairment charge on the acquisition, it may still be the key to shareholders getting fullest value from TomTom.
TomTom faces fierce competition from all sides, including its traditional rivals in the navigation space, such as Garmin Ltd. (NASDAQ:GRMN), but also from technology and auto companies, such as Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F), which teamed up to co-develop the Sync in-car connectivity system that provides traffic information and directions to cars such as the Ford Focus.
The biggest threat to TomTom's business, however, comes from smart-phone makers, notably Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), Nokia Corp. (NYSE:NOK) and Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG). The latter two companies announced late last year they would deliver free turn-by-turn directions on their mobile devices.
Digital mapping data is becoming increasingly valuable as location-based services increase in popularity. Nokia's $8.1 billion acquisition of Chicago-based digital map maker Navteq in 2007 provides the mapping data for its phones.
In the U.S., Google, which had used mapping data provided by Tele Atlas, recently began developing its own digital maps. Google still uses data for dozens of other countries from Tele Atlas.
"Google has the advantage," TomTom chief executive Harold Goddijn recently told reporters, acknowledging the search leader has the cash to invest in developing its own maps.
But Google also has the cash to make acquisitions, and its chief executive Eric Schmidt expects to make one a month. Buying TomTom for the Tele Atlas maps, which are considered top quality, may make more sense than Google's growing its own. Perhaps TomTom's ultimate destination will turn out to be Google.
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