Nokia's new Here service sneaks past Google to do battle with Apple

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 13, 2012

From The News Desk

Some of the world's largest tech companies have become cartographers. If you aren't building a maps product, like Apple, Google, or Nokia, you're partnering with someone who is. After a few millennia of having to find our way through the jungles and deserts and forests of old, a hike through Times Square becomes next to impossible if our smartphones aren't telling us exactly where every Starbucks is located.

Our forefathers' shame aside, finding the right mapping service is actually a pain in the ass. It used to be that you just used whatever came on your phone – Google Maps for the iPhone and Android devices, Nokia's maps for its Lumia devices, etc. But that changed with the introduction of Apple's maps product. Its, erm, "lackluster" accuracy, which Apple CEO Tim Cook admits, has left users scrambling for other solutions.

Now, as the iPhone continues to go without a decent mapping solution from a major player, the New York Times reports that Nokia plans to ship its product, dubbed "Here" in a few weeks. When asked why the company, which continues to fight an uphill battle with its Lumia devices, would ship a standout feature for another operating system, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said: “For the location platform to be at the highest quality, one needs scale, and you need as many different people contributing as possible."

Nokia announced that Android manufacturers will be able to use Here via an SDK in "early 2013," and the company demonstrated an Android "reference application," but Nokia's stopping short of releasing a proper application. Which begs the question: If Nokia is going for scale, why not ship on Android first?

Perhaps the answer can be traced back to an old warning scribbled onto maps, dating back to a time when the world was flat: "Here be dragons."

In order to gain new users, Nokia has to steal some from whichever platform it launches on. While Android has a significantly higher marketshare than any other mobile operating system, it also ships (in most cases) with Google Maps, often considered the best mapping product available. Ask an Android user which aspect of their phone they would like to change and most would probably mention anything besides Google Maps.

This isn't the case with Apple. If I could change one thing on my iPhone, it would be Apple's maps, and I know I'm not alone in that sentiment. To continue with the dragon metaphor: If Google's Maps are a great wyrm, Apple's maps are a salamander. Which would you rather try to steal from?

Then there's the fact that Google hasn't shipped Google Maps on iOS yet. The rule of "first!" probably comes into play here: In the same way that a commenter skips to the bottom of every article to say "first!" (you know who you are), Nokia has the chance to beat Google Maps to the iPhone. Whether or not this makes a different in the long run is hard to tell, but if Nokia's maps are good enough to become the de facto default for many iPhone users – and, according to The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, they might be – many users may settle simply so they don't have to switch platforms again.

In that context, Elop's comment to The New York Times about needing more users to build a better mapping service makes sense. By using its existing service, acquiring another company, and branching out to a hurting platform, Nokia has a rare opportunity to fight Apple and maybe, just maybe, win.

But Google? That seems unlikely. If Nokia is able to gain traction on iOS, it might end up in a position where it could get a meaningful return on investment for launching on Android. For now, however, it simply doesn't have a weapon powerful enough to bring Google down.