By Ben Ellison
Peeking into the Crystal Ball
|Part 2: These darn electronics have become important.|
Then again, there are all sorts of marine-specific electronics that will further evolve along with GPS. Consider the Automatic Identity System I highlighted last month, or so-called GPS gyros, or the conning screen (see page 52); they’re all exciting big-ship developments that could conceivably be scaled down to yachts. We’re already combining GPS with fuel-flow meters to generate valuable information like gph and range at current speed, using DSC to make location part of boat communications, and adopting telematics systems that call us at home if the anchor’s dragging.
There’s more, but certainly all this is a recipe for more confusion about how to equip and use a boat bridge. There is already enough of that. At my most cynical, I picture two tribes of boaters: those who are intrigued by all the techie possibilities but uncertain about which way to go, and those who are not intrigued, still uncertain, and just want to go boating. Then there are all the could-be-skippers that blanch at the profusion of screens and buttons and look for the boat show exit. The common thread, whether old salt or newbie, like it or not, is that these darn electronics have become important.
There’s probably no group more keenly aware of this issue than the honchos of the yachting business, the good folks pouring over sales reports and customer-satisfaction surveys...which brings us around to the other side of the crystal ball. There was no earth-shaking boom per se, but perhaps an industry-wide pause, when Brunswick recently purchased a controlling interest in Navman, the New Zealand-based firm on a hot growth streak, mostly in marine electronics but also in auto and personal navigation. As with the prior acquisition of Northstar by Brunswick, the press release said that business would go on as usual, but a little digging suggests a bigger story.
Actually, Brunswick CEO George Buckley, notably trained as an engineer, is straightforward about his vision for the world’s largest recreational marine company. The plan is to use technology to deliver yachts whose helms are as manageable and satisfying as the dashboard of a fine car. That Navman press release quotes Buckley thusly: “We believe marine electronics, integrated with boat and engine technologies, will ultimately make boating simpler and more enjoyable for our customers. The longer-term opportunities provided by this acquisition are huge.” Combine that last sentence with Buckley’s recent statement to investors that the Navman purchase only “completes the first half of our marine electronics needs.” He even suggested in a trade journal that Brunswick might be able to leverage its coming innovations in marine electronics into automotive products. It sounds like he truly means “huge.”
So will the various Brunswick brand boats really become like cars, completely equipped under one warranty and one name—lock, stock, and plotter? What’s the competition going to do? Genmar is already putting the OnStar-like Volvo Penta Sea Key on almost all of its new boats and has announced something called Integrated Vessel Systems, which apparently starts with engine monitoring but could grow to include everything electronic. Will the traditional aftermarket in dealer and customer-installed electronics shrivel? What do the “unacquired” electronics companies have up their sleeves? Ultimately, will boaters get to walk out of the electronics wilderness and into the light? Oh yeah, and if boating becomes as easy as driving, should marine-electronics pundits re-evaluate their career options? I’m not worried; a fascinating story is unfolding, and Bill Gates just announced that Microsoft is adding a half-billion dollars to its R&D budget. I’ll be plenty busy.
This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.