A few weeks ago, chances are if you were using Nokia's Here maps on a mobile device, you were one of the fairly limited number of Windows Phone users out there, thanks to Here's decision to not launch an app on Android, iOS, or any other platform, for that matter. Now, things are about to change in a big way for Nokia's maps: apps are on the way for both of the major smartphone OSes, there's a wearable version in the offing, and a deal with Samsung to boot.
For years, Nokia and Samsung were archrivals, battling for domiance of the smartphone market, but now, the two are working together. Last week, the two announced a deal that will see Nokia bring its Here mapping app to Galaxy devices and also to its Tizen line of wearables.
The beta Here app will be made available for Galaxy smartphones, and will sync with the Tizen version, allowing users to push maps from their handset to their wristworn hardware.
It's an intriguing agreement for two reasons: the Here app isn't available on iOS or Android, and Nokia has so far has announced no plans to bring Here to Android Wear, Google's recently announced wearables platform.
The deal has been widely — and likely very accurately — interpreted as an attempt by Samsung to generate some momentum for Tizen, the operating system it once hoped to use on smartphones, but now looks likely to confine to wearables.
While Google and Samsung are dependent on each other for their dominance of the smartphone OS and hardware markets respectively, Samsung has been keen to carve out a unique identity for its products.
According to Sean Fernback, Nokia's SVP of everyday mobility for Here, Samsung is hoping to use the Here deal to help differentiate its offerings from those of its Android OEM rivals.
"We were looking for opportunities to work with them, particularly around the mobile space because they have a very significant mobile reach. We went to talk to them, and one of the things they were struggling with was saying, 'how do we create something that just sets us aside from any other Android device?'. And that's when they started to talk to us about their Gear and Tizen development plans," he said.
Differentiation is becoming more of an issue for Samsung, with Google stepping up its control over what the handsets makers that use Android can do with its OS, banning OEMs from adding their own UIs or skins to Wear, and effectively making services like maps no longer optional for those wanting to use Android on smartphones.
That presents a problem for Nokia too, given that OEMs generally choose to use the GMS version of Android, which means having Google services – including Maps – preinstalled on their devices.
From next month, new Galaxy devices will also come with Nokia's Here Android app preinstalled, while those already out in the wild – S3, S4, and S5 models at least – will be able to download the app from the Samsung Store (for those connecting up their Galaxy to a Gear smartwatch using Here, the Android app download will be automatic). While there's no mention of compatibility with Galaxy tablets for the current release of the Here app, it's a safe bet Note slates will also begin supporting it before too long.
The Tizen app meanwhile will surface at the end of this month or early next, timed to coincide with the launch of the Gear S.
Nokia's Here unit professes itself platform agnostic, bringing Here to any platform its partners request. In Samsung's case, that request was for Tizen.
"We believe where there's scale or scale potential, we will invest in that platform. Today we support HTML5, Android, iOS. When you look at public data from Samsung, they're hoping to ship 400 million phones next year — we saw that as a reasonable opportunity, so we should make a commitment to developing Tizen based applications," said Fernback.
For a company that invests where it sees scale, Android Wear would seem to be a natural choice for further investment. Wear can draw on the vast Google ecosystem and has seen some decent reviews, Tizen has only Samsung behind it, and has been less warmly received.
Earlier this year, Samsung also announced a Wear-based device, the Gear Live, but no similar Wear app appears to be in the offing. While Nokia is "very aware of Android Wear", it hasn't been approached to work on the platform — by Samsung or anyone else.
"It wasn't our choice for [Samsung] to use Tizen — they've got their own reasons for developing Tizen around wearables, I think it's fairly obvious why. Because of what we feel is the scale opportunity, we decided we'd add that platform to our portfolio... If someone adopts Android Wear, and says 'we'd like to do something, will you help us?', we'd take that very seriously. No one has done that yet," Fernback said.
"This is a very competitive space, there's a number of different maps applications out there, a lot of them are free, and that's hard to compete with. So we decided we'd do something different and our approach to getting reach and distribution is by partnership only. That's not to say at some point we wouldn't put it on the [Play] Store, but that's not our prime strategy for creating a volume base of users," he added.
While partnerships may be the chief battle front for Here, it's still not adverse to going its own way whether requested by a partner or not. For example, an iOS version of the Here app is in the works, and it's hard to imagine that's at Apple's behest, particularly after Nokia pulled an earlier version of the Here app from the App Store after the release of iOS 7, slating the OS and Apple's own mapping efforts.
Similarly, a general Android app is on the way, though whether that will be released through Play or a rival Android app store isn't clear — Nokia declined to comment on the distribution strategy for both the Android and iOS apps, though clearly it has more options for distributing apps on Android than on iOS.
According to Fernback, both the iOS and Android Here apps should arrive before the end of the year. The Here blog has also hinted that more updates are on the way for the Galaxy app in the same timeframe, promising extra features "in the coming months".
Fernback wouldn't be drawn on the details of what to expect from the next update to Here, saying only: "Digital maps all look the same. Whether you look at it on the web, or on a portable device, a mobile device, whether it's us, or Google, or Garmin, they all look the same. All I can say is there's an opportunity there."
Elsewhere, Here is working on integrating technology from Nokia's two recent mapping-focused acquisitions, analytics company Medio and personalisation firm Desti. The most apparent fruits of that integration will be personalisation based on a user's current preferences and location - building a better "map of the moment", in Fernback's words.
But one thing that's not on Nokia's list: make any more hardware. Despite the rumours from those who saw a flurry of product-based job vacancies at Nokia, the company really isn't getting back into the hardware game, however much the Microsoft deal left that particular door open. Here is no exception: its efforts around wearables will be purely confined to putting its software on its partners' hardware.
When it comes to wearable devices, Nokia is watching and waiting for the "trigger moment" when the market takes off. In the meatime, its Technologies unit — the bit of the company that looks after R&D and licensing — is exploring what elements may feed into the wearables of tomorrow. But, underlines Fernback, "we don't have any plans today to do any physical products in that space".