Computerized navigation systems with electronic charting integrated to a GPS are exciting innovations for sailors. Although the methodology is not new, recent improvements to computers and software, decreased prices and increased availability of electronic charts have made this extraordinary technology available to most sailors.
The one thing that grew this industry was the introduction of the raster electronic chart by NOAA through a CRADA (see Electronic Charting Terminology for definitions) with BSB in the early 90s. Prior to that time, the majority of navigation programs used their own electronic charts scanned in from paper charts, or didn't support electronic charting at all. The original U.S. companies with proprietary navigation systems and electronic charts were D. F. Crane, Fair Tide Technologies and Laser Plot. Maptech was the first company to come out with an inexpensive ECS that would operate on any PC using Maptech charts.
After the introduction of the NOAA/BSB electronic charts, new companies like Nautical Technologies, Pin Point Systems, Nobletec, Main Course Productions, Jeppesen Marine and Nautical Software appeared. Since these new software companies didn't have proprietary charts and the requirement to keep them current, they were able to concentrate on writing programs to use all the electronic charts that followed NOAA/BSB into the marketplace. Transas Marine used its own proprietary vector charts from the beginning, but soon upgraded their program to use NOAA/BSB, NDI and ARCS raster charts. Today, Fair Tide Technologies is the only company that still uses its proprietary charts solely.
Very few of these software companies made anything for Mac/Apple computers and, quite naturally, several new companies, such as NavamaQ and Quintessence, developed an electronic charting program just for Mac/Apple computers. However, new software now allows any Windows-based navigation programs to be used on Mac/Apple computers.
In the mid 90s, the older companies had to rewrite their programs to use the NOAA/BSB charts, along with their own, like Laser Plot, or go out of business, as D. F. Crane did. Maptech just recently changed its product line to use the NOAA/BSB and ENC charts. The older programs use MS-DOS, whereas the newer ones run on the various versions of Windows. Maptech made their proprietary chart coding available to the other companies, and today all of them are able to use the different raster electronic charts available in the marketplace.
Not every company, however, wants to pay the royalties required to use the expensive ARCS electronic charts, for example. Most programs are now able to use the vector charts developed by Navionics and Transas. Maptech recently bought out BSB and controls the development, distribution and sales of the majority of electronic raster charts. Pin Point recently bought controlling interest in Nautical Technologies and markets their proprietary SoftCharts to compete with the Maptech/BSB and ENC charts. In the future, you can expect to see other mergers or consolidations, resulting in decreased prices for software and charts as the competition increases. The commercial sales and distribution of the new vector format ENC by NOAA will be handled by Maptech under a CRADA and may impact the industry almost as much as the introduction of the NOAA/BSB raster charts.
If you're a subscriber, you can get automatic updates of the Notices to Mariners from the Web for these ENCs. Of course, during this time the GPS manufacturers were not sitting still. Prior to the appearance of the NOAA raster charts, they were selling GPS plotters that used vector charts by either C-Map or Navionics. Today most of them also have a GPS plotter that will use the raster-chart CDs. And some have integrated hardware and navigation software into a package with a waterproof, daylight-readable screen. A computer with a remote, daylight-readable screen has a slight edge in that it can also be used for weather fax, e-mail, and business and recreational applications, whereas the GPS plotter is still a single-purpose electronic charting and navigation package. Transas, Pin Point, Nautical Technologies, Laser Plot and Maptech all have an integrated package of software and hardware that can use any GPS receiver and competes with the GPS raster chart plotters for market share.
Commercial vessels and Mega Yachts can afford the high-end ECDIS products, Transas charts and large-screen monitor technology. The recreational market has several other good choices as a result of this industry blending. For the average recreational sailor just getting into computers and electronic navigation, I think that she/he should consider this option: an inexpensive notebook computer at the nav station connected to a remote, waterproof, daylight-readable touch screen with differential GPS at the helm. A docking station at home with monitor, mouse and keyboard allows the notebook to be used as a desktop computer. And, of course, as a notebook it can be used anywhere in between. The choice of navigation and electronic-charting programs is somewhat a matter of personal choice. I will get into this area in the next article.