Garmin has sent a letter to its aviation customers reminding them that its mega-popular GNS 430 was introduced in 1998, which is 25 years ago, and that 25 years is a very long time when it comes to technology. While many of us have household appliances that old, or older, that soldier on, can you imagine using a personal computer built 25 years old? Of course not. But in aviation, where we fly 70-year-old airplanes as though they rolled out the factory hangar doors a few years ago, it’s not easy for many of us to accept that some of our tech has practical life limits. But it does, and Garmin’s letter was its gentle way of reminding us all that nothing good lasts forever.
I still remember the day way back in 1998—how did that happen!—when the late great Garmin sales guy Tim Casey invited me back to a little cubicle at a big trade show to reveal to me his company’s latest product, a panel-mounted box with a big bright display that he told me was called the Garmin 430. I was blown away. That revolution in a standard width package could seemingly do it all. It was a world-class GPS navigator, a visually compelling flip-flop comm radio, an FMS and more. I knew instantly that I was seeing the future of aircraft electronics.
And I was right. Over the past quarter of a century, the Olathe, Kansas,-based electronics maker, which has risen to become the runway leader in electronics for small to not-so-small aircraft, has become ubiquitous in light-plane avionics panels. While the GNS 430 wasn’t its first panel-mount product, it surely accelerated the company’s path to success and, not long after, dominance, by being the one avionics product that every light plane owner just had to have in the panel. Since that 1998 launch, Garmin has sold nearly 150,000 GNS-430s. It’s hard to say how many buyers put more than one in their panels—a dual GNS-430 install was a popular option—but that still means that a big percentage of light planes have flown with a 430.
Another revolution for this product was its price. While around $10,000 might not sound cheap to today’s buyers, who are used to a lot of capability for not a lot of dough, at the time there was nothing that could come close to touching the value proposition of the GNS-430, and remarkably, that was true for well over a decade, arguably longer. In a single box, the GNS 430 gave pilots capabilities that they couldn’t get anywhere else at any price and at a cost that allowed widespread adoption at a level not seen since King’s Silver Crown avionics components ruled the light-aviation skies in the 1970s. And the Garmin box could do the work of an armload of previous-technology products, and more, and all for the price of a fraction of that armload of old tech.
It’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that the letter from Garmin is all a ploy by a corporate giant to sell new products to old customers, but it’s simply not the case.
When a washing machine part wears out or breaks, it’s not hard to find a replacement part, even for machines that predate cable television. Long after the manufacturer stops making those machines, you can still find the parts. Part of that is because those parts are often used in subsequent products and in part it’s because third-party companies build clone parts that you can just pop in and go about your washing workday.
But computer parts aren’t much like that at all. Remember that the avionics revolution that started making itself known in the 1980s was a result of smart and agile companies leveraging existing computer parts and technology into products for our light planes. This eventually resulted in products like the GNS 430, among many dozens of others from Garmin, and Aspen, and Avidyne and more. That meant using off-the-shelf products in aviation applications—after jumping through many of the FAA’s hoops—or contracting with those computer parts makers to build parts for your aviation product.
Here’s where it gets tricky and where our dreams of evergreen products go to die. When a company like Garmin contracts with a parts maker to build digital components for a product line, it isn’t contracting for that partner company to make those parts forever. It is agreeing to buy a certain number of those components that it predicts will last the life of the product line. For the Garmin GNS 430, one such component is the display. Garmin had to makes its best guess how many GNS 430s it would build, for how long and how many of the screens it would need to replace during that product’s lifespan. If back in 1998 you guessed that the GNS 430 would be produced for 20 years and sell 150,000 units, well, you’d have been right, and those were indeed Garmin’s guesses, which is pretty amazing that they would have taken what amounted to a giant gamble with the investment in a product that they thought would be a big hit when it had no way of knowing that for a fact.
Now, 25 years down the line for the GNS 430, Garmin is indeed running low on certain parts—our best guess is that the display is the chief concern—and that means they might not be able to repair broken 430s for much longer.
In an unusual set of circumstances, with the introduction by Garmin a few years back of the GTN series of touchscreen multifunction navigators, used GNS 430s became hot commodities on the used marketplace, selling in many cases for more than their original retail prices even as owners by the thousands swapped out their 430s for the new-gen Garmin navigators .Will those used 430s purchased to save several thousand dollars prove a poor investment? Maybe. But those are the risks of such gambits.
The replacement pathway for those owners and for others who have had 430s in their panels for a couple of decades is a GNX product. The GNX 650 Xi is the same form factor as the 430, and it has a wealth of improved capability. Its bigger panel mate, the GNX 750 Xi, is a whole different ballgame. For starters, it’s huge, so big in fact that it can serve as a pseudo flat-panel multifunction display, and the new products integrate with a host of others that were only a twinkle in Garmin planners’ eyes when the 430 was being hatched.
These products aren’t cheap, running roughly a third again more than a 430 would cost, that is, if it were still being made today. But these new boxes offer so much more capability. And for those owners who are more brand agnostic, quality products from Aspen and Avidyne, among others, offer compelling options.
The bottom line is this: Avionics aren’t much like airframes in terms of product life, but for now at least, that’s okay, since the replacement pathways for products descending toward obsolescence are many, relatively affordable and attractive both in terms of capability and ease of use.