Saturday, June 16, 2012

DeLorme InReach: competition for Spot?

The most recent (to my knowledge) addition to the pile of yuppie 911 gizmos is the DeLorme inReach, which provides similar functionality to a SPOT plus a little extra.  Arguably a lot extra, but it raises questions around whether the costs of providing that extra function are a good tradeoff for the costs, both monetary and decreased reliability/battery life/etc. for an emergency signaling device.

The other thing is that I'm going to be comparing it with the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, even though the SPOT Connect is similar to the InReach.  The reason I'm doing what's quite likely an unfair comparison is because I'm interested in these gizmos for two things: 1) tracking, and 2) emergency signaling, and DeLorme doesn't have a simple all-in-one gizmo like the SPOT GPS Messenger.  It's got the InReach, with several different options for a GPS data source none of which appears to be, like, right there, on the device.

I'd like to say, first, that I hope to hell I am misunderstanding the device, because from all appearances all it does is communicate with a satellite, both uplink and downlink.  If you want to send out information on where you are - your GPS coordinates - you'll need a GPS device, whether it's a DeLorme PN-60w or your iOS or Android smartphone.  That is to say, if you need to signal for help you appear to need to have two devices fully powered (no dead batteries) and fully functional (not broken).  If you're familiar with issues around calculating mean time between failures (MTBF) and independent probabilities, you understand that independent probabilities multiply.  Here's an example with some totally fabricated numbers:

If there's a 10% probability that the InReach will fail, 
   P(InReachWorks) = .9
and a 40% probability that the iPhone will fail,
   P(iPhoneWorks) = .6
The probability that everything will be working is calculated as:
   P(HunkyDory) = P(InReachWorks) x P(iPhoneWorks),
   P(HunkyDory) = .9 x .6,
or  ... the bottom line is that the likelihood that everything will work is .56 (56%), or less than the probability that either device will work.  That is to say, even though neither device is likely to fail, it's more likely that one of the two of them will (probability is awesome).  If your primary interest in the InReach is as an emergency device, it's probably (heh) worth keeping the reliability issues around requiring multiple devices in mind.

It uses Bluetooth to pair with a phone or with the GPS.  Radio activity is expensive, in terms of battery draw.  I think this was not a great engineering decision for what's supposed to be an emergency device.

Where it really stands out, however, is in services.  The Spot has several messaging functions:

  1. it can send an SOS message to an emergency response center
  2. it can send an "I need help" message to a pre-programmed family member or friend
  3. it can send a pre-programmed check-in/all's well message to SPOT's data center, which can be followed along by friends and family using SPOT's (unfortunate) web interface, and 
  4. it can send tracking messages every 10 minutes
The InReach is designed to be more messaging-centric and less PLB-ish than the SPOT.  Because it's paired with a smartphone (or the DeLorme GPS, which has a rudimentary soft keyboard function), it allows the user to compose email or SMS messages, read email, and - heaven help us all - post to Facebook and Twitter.  The smartphone version allows downloading topo maps and marine charts over the satellite link, but have a thought for what that's going to do to your battery life.

Also, there's no API!  Seriously, that's going to limit the development of third party whizzies, like, say, TrackLeaders and other creative stuff.  I hope they'll reconsider that one.  

Costs: yup, and they're not trivial.  The satellite interface alone costs $249 (compared with the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, at $119.99, and the SPOT Connect, at $169.99).  As for subscription services, the basic "Safety" plan includes 10 text messages and no tracking, at $9.95 per month ($119.40/year, as compared with SPOT's $99.99 year for SOS and unlimited check-ins with no tracking.  Tracking is available with the inReach Recreation and Expedition Plans, for $24.95/month ($299.40/year) and $49.95/month ($599.40/year) respectively.  The difference between those two plans seems to be in the number of messages (SMS/email/Facebook/Twitter) included.  With SPOT, tracking will run an additional $49.99/year, or a total of $149.98 for tracking, very limited messaging, and emergency services.

It's probably worthwhile to compare the inReach with the SPOT Connect device in a future post, but what I really wanted to bring out here is that I don't think that the inReach really is a competitor with the SPOT Satellite Messenger.  The latter provides reliable (granted, there have been some engineering issues with the SPOT-2) emergency signaling and tracking services, and the inReach has features that suggests a much stronger orientation towards communication from remote areas, at the unfortunate cost of questionable reliability for emergency signaling from the bush.  This may be fine in areas where you're likely to encounter other people on the trail within a time period of a few days but unfortunately is not something I'd consider using here in Alaska, where "remote" means that you really are on your own.