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Keys to the Kingdom

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MaxSea software got access to NavNet hardware.

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 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 output, 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 Ehternet, 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 multi-layer 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) data protocol 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 Furono 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 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 coplicated negations with PC charting companies likely both intrigued with access to Furono'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 the, 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 faciliated 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.


MaxSea can display and improve bathymetric maps.

Let's have a look. Once the NavNet MaxSea software is installed on a laptop or onboard PC, there will be no need to mess with wiring in even a GPS. Just plug in that one slim Ethernet cable and—bada bing—drop-down menus give you access to, and control of, radar, fishfinder, everything. Kunz and Kurutz dazzled the audience with how smoothly this worked and how MaxSea could pan and zoom C-Map NT+ charts living on the NavNet system as fast as the regular display could and vice versa. But MaxSea can also read MapTech, Softchart, ARCS, NDI, and Mapmedia (MaxSea's own format) raster charts, as well as C-Map's commercial-level CM-93 and NOAA's free ENC vector charts. Thus you can use the best or favorite chart for any occasion or location and still have radar overlay, ARPA targets, waypoint sharing, etc.

MaxSea has a big following among the offshore sailing crowd and thus has a well-developed system for downloading compact but rich weather files for anywhere, free from its own servers, then overlaying and animating them on the charts. Moreover, a routing module can examine these predictions along with a description you build of your boat's abilities in different wind and sea conditions, as well as your preferences on the speed-versus-pain continuum, and come up with a recommended voyage plan (powerboat version in development). Perhaps more important, MaxSea has long served the needs of some commercial and high-end sportfishermen and thus can display sea-surface temperature charts and elaborate 2-D and 3-D bathymetry. There's even a Personal Bathometric Generator module that can rebuild and detail the bathy charts on the fly using NavNet's fishfinder. There's more, but suffice it to say that NavNet MaxSea adds oodles of possibilities to Furono's already able and rugged hardware system.

Mind you, the relationship does not come cheap. The basic NavNet Commander package is $1,500, $500 more than the MaxSea-only version. But Kunz notes that built into that margin is complete, "as long as it takes" Furuno worldwide support, even for underlying Windows issues, and I'll bet that some customers will find this single-vendor feature at least as valuable as the single Ethernet wire. It's the whole package that's a milestone. (To be fair, Raymarine first introduced an integrated hardware/PC system, RayTech, but it was somewhat awkward with the original HSB networking, and the company seemed to pull back on it, probably in anticipation of its recent switchover to Ethernet. I'm sure RayTech will return.)

In hindsight Furuno's early adoption of Ethernet may have seemed a red herring but was actually a promise of things to come, a promise now delivered on big time. In fact, it turns out that NavNet MaxSea works fine even with the original system. NavNet vx2 is incremental—the same NavNet1 size choices, only with improved displays, easier installation, support of C-Map Max charts (and maybe Navionics Platinum eventually), and use of SD chart cards for easy system upgrades—and backward-compatible with all existing NavNet1 gear. (I wish Furuno had added NMEA 2000 support as well—another big story in Miami—but am told that it may come to the whole series with a single 2000-to-Ethernet gateway box.)

Kunz is justifiably proud of Furono's early Ethernet move and his 2001 prediction that most manufacturers would eventually follow. And it's the truth of that prediction that makes NavNet MaxSea even more significant. Northstar, Garmin, and Raymarine now all have Ethernet connections—possible PC doors, though locked thus far—to their electronics networks. Can you hear more keys to the kingdoms jingling?

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.