Nokia has released a new version of Ovi Maps that makes turn-by-turn navigation free for users of the manufacturer's latest handsets.
The update to the mapping software, which users previously had to paid for, was announced by the Finnish company on Thursday. The software makes it possible for people to download maps for 180 countries at home. They can then use those maps with GPS connectivity while abroad, without having to pay any data-roaming charges.
"The maps and navigation and many associated services will be completely free to consumers," Nokia multimedia chief Anssi Vanjoki said at the London launch of the new navigation software, which he described as "personal navigation device" grade.
"[The new Ovi Maps uses a] hybrid technology that will allow people to use their devices both on and offline with complete navigation services," Vanjoki said, adding that online connectivity would make added functionality, such as traffic information, available.
Associated services that are now free to use in Ovi Maps include Lonely Planet travel guides and Michelin city guides.
Ovi Maps uses vector graphics to present maps, Vanjoki said. He pointed out that this graphics approach "doesn't consume and congest the networks with all the necessary information".
By contrast, Google uses bulkier bitmap graphics in its competing free turn-by-turn Google Maps Navigation, which it launched in 2009 for some Android phones.
In a possible dig at Google's product, which provides only road maps, and only for the US, Vanjoki noted that the new Ovi Maps is "not just something for one market", but a global product that has dedicated services for drivers and pedestrians, giving the latter the option to navigate through pathways and parks.
"We have coverage that is second to none," Vanjoki said, pointing out that Ovi Maps includes maps for 180 countries, with full voice-guided navigation available for 74 countries and live traffic information for more than 10 countries.
Thursday's launch will lead to many changes for Nokia, said Vanjoki — for example, he expects the launch to have a positive impact on Nokia's developer pool.
"Developers, starting today, will have a huge platform in which they can use our map layers and APIs to develop apps," he said. "This will really give a boost to our already active commercial operation in the Ovi Store [and] will change the marketplace quite a lot."
In addition, he predicted the update will help Nokia boost its smartphone sales in the locations where it is available.
Vanjoki added that Nokia has a longer-term vision where "the map is the user interface of our life" and noted that Ovi Maps would, at some point, provide a "fantastic platform" for location-based advertising.
Downloads of the new Ovi Maps are available immediately for 10 existing Nokia smartphones. These include...
...the Nokia N97 mini (but not the N97 itself), the enterprise-focused E72 and E55 handsets, the Nokia 5800 in XpressMusic and Navigation editions, the Nokia E52, Nokia 5230, Nokia 6710 Navigator, Nokia 6730 classic and Nokia X6. Support for several other phones that are already on the market will be added over the coming weeks, Vanjoki said.
From March, all new GPS-enabled, Symbian-based Nokia smartphones will come with the new Ovi Maps, and will be preloaded with maps for the country of sale.
According to Vanjoki, the new Ovi Maps will in future support Nokia's Linux-based Maemo platform, which powers the company's N900 handset.
Nokia bought the navigation company Navteq in 2007 for $8.1bn (£4bn at the time). Navteq's technology now underpins the Finnish firm's navigation services.
Nokia's launch shows "the writing's on the wall for navigation revenue", Forrester analyst Charles Golvin commented on Thursday.
"Google's move clearly punctured the navigation service balloon," Golvin wrote on his blog. "Nokia could have held out longer, but every day that passed would have weakened their position."
When Google announced its free turn-by-turn navigation service in October, the news immediately hit the shares of navigation companies such as TomTom and Garmin. That effect has now been repeated — at the time of writing on Thursday morning, TomTom's shares had dropped 14 percent on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, and Garmin's shares were down 2.5 percent on the Nasdaq.
The update will make Nokia phones much more competitive against Android devices, as Google only provides free navigation in the US for now, according to Golvin.
He added that Ovi Maps was "more operator-friendly", as vector-based graphics place a much lighter load on the network and the feature will work even when out of network range.
A Google spokesman, asked whether the company might make its turn-by-turn navigation services available outside the US, said Google never pre-announces new services.