By Ben Ellison
Keys to the Kingdom
|Furuno taps MaxSea to unleash the power of NavNet.|
At the 2001 Miami International Boat Show, Furuno USA product development manager Eric Kunz and marketing manager Dean Kurutz delivered an impressive double-team presentation on their new NavNet electronics series to an overflow audience of marine journalists and electronics dealers. Of course we know now that these networked multifunction products went on to great success. Features like radar overlay, black-box fishfinder, optional video input, and a fast-acting—and pleasingly retro—control knob won many admirers. But one much-touted aspect of NavNet, the use of the fast PC networking protocol Ethernet, struck me as a bit of a red herring. In a proprietary system, who cares what protocols are involved? Sure, you could physically plug a NavNet system into a computer or other Ethernet device, but they still couldn’t talk to each other.
You see, networking between dissimilar processors and software is really a multilayer affair. You need more than a fast communications protocol—more even than the next level TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, if you must know) also used by NavNet (and, interestingly, the Web). For a team of PC charting developers to access all the stuff zipping around NavNet, they needed what I call “the keys to the kingdom.” I’m talking about the code that specifically defines items like the radar imagery and controls, and my naming suggests what a big deal sharing this code is for Furuno and for us. The power and possibilities of opening the door between a PC and a whole network of dedicated marine sensors and control heads like NavNet are dizzying, but there were issues to consider.
Would NavNet users given access and control through a PC buy fewer displays? If Furuno decided to go this route, would it develop its own PC software or partner with an existing company? Would it—could it—properly support the resulting product and hence the notoriously persnickety Windows operating system? Picture years of strategy meetings between Furuno’s conservative senior management in Japan—also occupied with the company’s burgeoning big-ship electronics business—and the Kunz/Kurutz team that had advocated for the NavNet door in the first place. Picture, too, some seriously complicated negotiations with PC charting companies likely both intrigued with access to Furuno’s relatively huge dealer and customer base but also hard at work on their own visions of a networked vessel.
Meanwhile, continued NavNet developments hinted at its true potential. Its Ethernet and TCP/IP architecture allowed the U.S. Coast Guard to install NavNet radars at certain remote locations and then network them, sometimes even via WiFi wireless, back to other NavNet displays at the base. Furuno introduced the neat Fax30, an automated black-box Weatherfax and Navtex receiver that can be accessed via Ethernet either from a NavNet display or from a PC simply using a Web browser. New black-box NavNet sets and a line of marine monitors made bigger boat installations more flexible and facilitated sharing displays with a PC.
But let’s cut to the chase. When Kunz and Kurutz presented both NavNet vx2 (Version 2) and NavNet MaxSea software to another overflow audience at the 2005 Miami show, it was a milestone in the evolution of marine electronics. I’ve written here often about the increasing convergence of PCs and dedicated marine hardware, particularly at the high end, like Nobeltec’s new IR2 high-resolution radar and powerful new PC/plotter fusions like Northstar’s 958, Maptech’s i3, and Raymarine’s H6. In fact, Kunz credits developments like these with motivating his bosses in Japan. “Someone was going to do it, it might as well be us,” he said in an “aw shucks” way, though there’s nothing aw shucks about NavNet MaxSea. It’s big.
In retrospect, MaxSea seems like the perfect partner for Furuno. Although not well known in the States, this French company has been in the marine business for 20 years. And it has focused on developing high-end, sometimes small-niche, software but has not gotten involved in developing its own hardware. In other words, there’s little overlap between what NavNet and MaxSea might do for you; each adds a lot to the other.
This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.