|Digital Charts Bonanza|
Navigators benefit from free-market forces.
By Ben Ellison — March 2002
I’ve been known to wistfully point out the 25-cent price stamped on a 40-year-old navigational chart pinned up in my office. I was cruising during the decades when the cost of paper charts ballooned way faster than inflation, presumably due to increasing press and distribution expenses, and it got progressively harder to own all the charts wise navigation dictated. Many boaters made do with incomplete booklets or even smudgy photocopies. I’m pleased to report that electronic charts have radically reversed this trend, especially within the last year.
The economics of digital charts are different from hard goods like, say, electronics or boats. Manufacturing costs are primarily in development and marketing, rather than actual unit production; CDs are dirt cheap, and even large memory cards are becoming reasonable. Hence, the makers of PC and plotter cartography can lower unit prices drastically if they think it will substantially increase sales or if they feel challenged by competitors. Those are the forces at work, and the results for navigators are sweet. Not only are prices seriously down, but features and flexibility are up.
Perhaps Maptech set off the trend with Digital ChartKit 2001. The company vastly expanded its regular raster chart CDs, bundling in its photo and topo maps, tide and current tables, pilot books and light lists, and more–including improved planning software–without increasing the price. A stack of CDs covering a region like the east coast of Florida went from costing about $1,000 to $200 overnight.
PC charting rival Nobeltec soon added street and contour data to its Passport vector charts, then released a free software upgrade enabling stunning relief imagery and this winter introduced a Passport Deluxe bundle very similar to Maptech’s. The included raster charts, topos, and photo maps could all use a little fine-tuning but are certainly a great value at $250 per region. Nobeltec is also raising the competitive ante with two forms of every chart.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.