Does Nokia's Here launch imagine a world without Nokia phones?

Here is a solid mapping offering from Nokia - and one that looks like the Finnish handset maker is hatching a plan B in case its partnership with Microsoft runs aground.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Nokia this week launched Here, its new mapping service now available on the web, soon on iOS in the form of a native HTML5 app, and coming to Android via third-party developers next year.  

It's the product of Nokia's location and commerce business, which is by far the company's smallest unit - bringing in just three percent of its total revenues in Q3 2012. Nevertheless, Nokia chief Stephen Elop says mapping is one of five key areas for the company, along with Windows smartphones, basic phones, Nokia Siemens Networks network infrastructure and patents.   

Elop has persistently pointed to location and commerce as part of Nokia's device differentiation strategy, although one overshadowed by the bigger question of whether Nokia would have any devices to differentiate in the near future. 

Nokia created the unit last June by merging its $8bn Navteq acquisition with its social and location services operations. Along with the wider cuts Nokia has made across its handset business, in October it trimmed 1,300 staff from the Navteq division's headcount of 7,200. 

The unit, which sells mapping services to the likes of BMW, Ford and Microsoft's Bing, earned $100m  less in Q3 2012 than it did a year ago. It's a low-light for the unit, yet Here indicates that it's not out for the count in the field.  Here is a decent mapping offering, albeit a product that is almost entirely disassociated from Nokia's Windows Phone mothership.

After playing with Here for a while my impression is that it's a solid mapping platform, nearly as good as Google Maps, but still playing catch-up to its better known rival. 

Google Maps and Nokia Here's view of the Golden Gate bridge. Image: Google, Nokia

The 3D version of Here on the web (via Chrome on a Mac) didn't require a plugin, and was impressive. It was as smooth to navigate as Google Maps with the Earth plugin and offered a detailed birds-eye view of major cities (although Google still trumps Here in smaller cities).

Its standard mapping interface quickly spits out road directions between cities, but fell short on public transport - one of the features Nokia claims it's on par with Google Maps and ahead of Apple. For example, mapping out a train trip between the Swedish capital Stockholm to nearby Uppsala was not possible, even though it's a direct line between Sweden's largest and fourth largest cities. Google Maps does. Meanwhile, Google Maps offers public transport routes between England's London and south-western city Bristol, while Here only offers road routes. 

On the surface of it, Here remains a confusing pitch – if mapping is so key to Nokia, why does Here, with its Facebook blue borders and font, contain only a single reference to Nokia in the form of a stamp noting it as the source of the maps? And if maps are such a differentiator, as Elop has said, why make them available on rival platforms, and give buyers another reason not to shift back to Nokia? 

Despite appearances, it may be that Here is a very clever move on Nokia's behalf.  While the likes of the City Lens augmented reality app, exclusive to Windows Phone 8, suggest it's still keen to keep its Microsoft bedfellows happy, the fact that it's released Here with so little Nokia branding paints a different picture.

Here seems to presage a future where the Nokia brand has disappeared, and its link to Windows is broken – perhaps one where Nokia is a mobile services, or software, company.  Should its Lumia range fail to catch consumers' imaginations, at least Here suggests Nokia has its eye on independent business units that will live on even if it's forced to hang up on handsets.

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