Nokia has launched it’s own Maps service after a user-backlash led Apple to apologise for the quality of its iOS6 Maps update.The Finnish firm quickly capitalised by beating Google to the release of an app in Apple’s iPhone and iPad store.
Giving away a product that cost millions of dollars to create to owners of a rival’s products might seem like an odd business decision, but behind it lies a critical point.
If Nokia’s 25-year-old mapping business is to survive the evolution from dedicated sat-nav systems to smart devices it needs to secure as much feedback data as it can.
That means attempting to woo smartphone and tablet users with a series of innovations.
You can already see a hint of the importance of feedback data in the colour codes Nokia uses to show which streets are suffering from busy traffic. It does this by taking anonymised GPS and movement readings from users’ phones and other Nokia-powered sat-nav systems to work out road conditions.
Its upcoming Living Maps feature aims to take this a step further by colour-coding areas according to each user’s leisure tastes.
The unit traces its roots to Barry Karlin, a South African immigrant to Silicon Valley who had the idea of a computer mapping solution after becoming lost while driving in the area in 1984 and finding the large map he owned unwieldy to use.
In 1987 he launched DriverGuide – a printed door-to-door driving guide sold from kiosks which was targeted at rental car drivers in San Francisco.
Over the following years the company changed its name first to Navtech, then Navteq and for a time came under the control of Philips.
But after research costs mounted, the Dutch company decided go in a different direction and by 2004 the business had been floated on the New York Stock Exchange with a valuation of about $2 billion (£1.2 billion).
Its public status proved to be short-lived when Nokia announced it wanted to acquire the firm in 2007. It paid $8.1 billion for the privilege the following year.
Nokia already powers the default map apps on Windows Phone handsets, Windows 8 computers and Amazon’s Kindle tablets.
The True cars are fitted with a range of sensors including high-precision cameras and an inertial measurement unit which measures the slope of each road – a feature which could allow trucking companies to identify the least hilly routes in order to cut fuel costs.
But the critical feature is a rotating sensor called Lidar (light detection and ranging) which uses 64 lasers to capture 1.3 million points of digital information every second of each vehicle’s journey.
“The lasers bounce off any reflective surface that allows us to capture lane markings [which use reflective paint], it shows us the exact location of road signs and it also allows us to capture the world in 3D,” explains Mr Fox.
“That’s the primary purpose… we are able to create at street-level a digital representation of the real world.”
While Google’s Street View offers panoramic photos, Nokia intends to offer a computer-created graphics-based version of the planet by combining Lidar-collected data with colour information gathered by panoramic cameras.
The advantage, Mr Fox suggests, is that Nokia can offer a highly-detailed depiction of the environment to pedestrians, but a less distracting version to motorists.
6,366 people are employed by Nokia’s location division.