Nokia still hasn’t found its way to a successful comeback in the smartphone market. But the company is hoping to get its tentacles into competitors’ phones through mapping applications, a move it hopes will help it improve its maps.
The company said on Tuesday that in the coming weeks it would release a maps app called Here in Apple’s App Store. It will be a free download for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch owners. Nokia also said it would release a toolkit for programmers to make Nokia-powered mapping apps for Android phones. And it is forming a partnership with Mozilla, the browser company, to develop location features for its new operating system, called Firefox OS.
Nokia has emphasized the power and thoroughness of its mapping database, which has information on 200 countries, in an effort to distinguish its new Lumia smartphones from the competition. For instance, when Apple’s new maps system turned out to have some embarrassing lapses, Nokia published a blog post that compared its maps with Apple’s and Google’s and, of course, concluded the Nokia maps were better.
But Nokia’s Lumia smartphones haven’t sold very well. So why give away its secret sauce to rivals?
Stephen Elop, chief executive of Nokia, said in an interview that in order to ensure that its mapping platform stays competitive, it needs lots of users. The more people who look up directions or search for locations on its maps, the smarter the system gets. And Nokia can still build exclusive location features into its Lumia phones, he said.
“For the location platform to be at the highest quality, one needs scale, and you need as many different people contributing as possible,” Mr. Elop said. “Of course, Nokia will build apps, some of them unique to Lumia devices, that gain a competitive advantage for Nokia.”
He said that, for instance, current Lumia phones use an app called City Lens that enables users to point the camera at real-world objects and see data overlaid on top of them on the screen. Pointing the camera at a restaurant pulls up online reviews for it. That feature will not be available in the apps for other phones.
If Nokia’s mapping app for the iPhone is released soon, it could beat Google to the punch. Apple’s maps app previously used Google’s mapping data, and now Google is reportedly developing its own iOS maps app.
Nokia’s Here app for iOS includes voice-guided walking navigation and public transportation directions — features that Apple’s maps app lacks. And Mr. Elop noted that a particular feature that iPhone owners using the Now app might enjoy is offline support. A person can specify that he spends most of his time in New York, for example, and download the maps in advance so that location searches can be done more quickly, or even in areas with no cellphone reception, like in a subway tunnel.
“Many people have stared at their map waiting for their tiles to download for some time,” he said. “We’re able to put that computational mapping data onto the devices, so that’s a significant improvement.”
Nokia also announced that it had agreed to acquire Earthmine, a mapping company based in Berkeley, Calif., that specializes in three-dimensional maps showing street views. It said it expected the deal to close by the end of the year. Doug Dawson, a Nokia spokesman, declined to say how much the company was paying for Earthmine.