Caught In The Rat Rush

Technology journalists get invited to all kinds of “launches”, from dry briefings about the inner workings of the latest PC (and what usually amounts to the most fractional difference in performance) to fancy lunches and sometimes over-the-top “activity-based” edutainments.
In-car GPS company TomTom – or rather, one suspects, its local PR company JML Communications – obviously favours the latter methodology, the logic (seemingly) being that those of the journalistic fraternity a) need some diversion from their humdrum lives tapping out stories and b) will be more likely to produce some glowing copy if they’re prompted by novelty value.
In 2009, each invited journalist was driven out to a South Auckland winery in a vintage car (one car and driver for each writer) equipped with a TomTom. Once at the venue, we were encouraged to drive motorised golf carts around a set of co-ordinates, just for fun. And then they fed us. In 2010 each invited journalist got to drive a brand-new Suzuki Swift (ironically, I own one of these very practical and economical if rather boring cars) out to Pukekohe race-track (using TomTom GPS, of course), where we were invited to risk life and limb in the suicide seat of a racing car blatting along at Lord knows what speed. And then they fed us.
I like the feeding part, especially if it involves a wine or two. Not that I’m a driving drinker, it’s just nice to wet your whistle after a hard morning’s entertainment.
As for adventure… well… I declined that ride in the racing car. Like most humans, I like the sensation of speed, but I have a thing about control, and I didn’t know the driver from Adam.
The latest TomTom “edutainment” – which took place earlier this week – involved flying around Auckland city in a helicopter. I declined the invitation. The thing is, as I get older, the more flying-phobic I become; but that’s not all. This TomTom event – which was designed to back up a survey the company had taken about Auckland and Wellington peak traffic times and the device’s ability to get the driver where they’re going faster than the rest of the pack – wasn’t even a launch.
What that means is that as a freelance journalist I would have had to have taken the best part of a day out of my schedule to be “edutained” at TomTom’s expense, which is really my expense in real terms, because it would have meant that I catch up on my work in real time, at the weekend, when I’m expected to spend at least a little bit of quality time with the family.
A fun event is great, although I would pass on the helicopters every time. But I think TomTom should rethink its local launches strategy. The contemporary journalist is scrabbling away, struggling, always, to meet deadlines. There’s really not a minute to spare. Buy us lunch, sure. Give us some product to test. Make it short and succinct. If you really want to make us fans, pay for our ticket to some international technology show, or your own factory.

SO, THEN… What was this TomTom event in aid of? The heli-venture was all about getting a picture of a city’s congestion, illustrating the survey data that the GPS company has released.
In Auckland, Takapuna came out worst for the morning commute. Its travel time was almost three times longer during peak traffic time. Other Auckland suburbs that came out badly in the survey were Albany, Mairangi Bay and Devonport. Ponsonby, on the other hand, was squeaky clean – its travel time to the city increased by only 36 percent in the rush, compared to Takapuna’s massive 179 percent increase.
Wellington was also surveyed, with Petone the worst offender (a 120 percent increase), and Khandallah the best.
TomTom’s Asia Pacific Vice President Chris Kearney disingenuously claimed that “we hope to inspire and enable people to consider alternative routes and departure times.” It’s a good sentiment, but everyone knows that what Mr Kearney really wants is to sell more TomTom units.
Oh, here comes the sting in the press release: “You can easily find the fastest way around traffic using a TomTom GPS with HD Traffic, which updates every two minutes with the latest road conditions.” Now, that’s honest, and exactly what we expect from a TomTom employee. And it may even be true.
“Utilising TomTom HD Traffic has shown to reduce journey times for individual TomTom drivers by up to 15 percent”, said Kearney. “Drivers using dynamic traffic information are more likely to adjust their journeys to avoid existing congestion, allowing traffic bottlenecks to clear more quickly and keep the road network moving.”
This is very likely true. I wouldn’t know, because my default GPS unit at the moment is a competing brand, Navman… which also happens to have its own live traffic alerts. This writer actually prefers TomTom GPS devices (as quite a number of product reviews attest) but the last TomTom I attempted to review attached some nasty software to my iMac that impacted on its performance, and took hours of remedial action to eradicate. That really pissed me off. Oh, and another thing: the Navman launch involved a succinct 40 minute briefing over lunch, and a goodie bag containing a free unit. Easy to see why it’s the Navman that has become this blagger’s de facto friend. GARY STEEL

* TomTom’s manifesto on the reduction of peak-hour traffic can be found here: www.tomtom.com/landing_pages/trafficmanifesto/index-project.php?Lid=1

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