Nokia to Tackle Google, First in Mapping, Then Everywhere

Nokia doesn’t want you to think of its forthcoming mapping software for PCs as a Google Maps competitor. But press them, and Nokia executives will admit Google is the enemy. And with that particular enemy, there can be no compromise.

At the Where 2.0 conference in Burlingame, Calif. today, Nokia showed an early, alpha version of Maps on Ovi. Ovi is Nokia’s still-wet-around-the-ears social media site, where Nokia phone users will be able to share photos, video, music and other content from their phones. Gadget Lab caught a demo last night while watching the San Francisco Giants lose to the Houston Astros.

The demo is impressive. Unlike most web-based mapping applications, the screen refreshes rapidly, enabling you to pan, tilt, and spin your view of the map while the screen refreshes almost instantaneously. We zoomed around a yellow-and-blue map of San Francisco with an aerial abandon that felt like flying over the city an F-16 in comparison with Google Maps’ pokey dirigible. Nokia gets that speed by using vector-based maps and doing the redrawing computation on the user’s computer, rather than the servers.

Nokia vice president Michael Halbherr said that pushing image processing down to the PC, instead of doing it on web servers, reflects Nokia’s approach to "cloud computing." With this approach, Halbherr said, the company can scale to billions of users "without having to buy electric power plants" — a reference toGoogle’s energy-hungry server farms and its recent investment in eSolar, a company that makes solar power plants.

Maps on Ovi lets you look up points of interest and then calculates either driving or walking directions. (For the latter, the maps include pedestrian-only streets and alleys that other map services lack.) You can even select several points and create an itinerary that takes you to, say, all of the Irish pubs in downtown San Francisco, one after the other. We didn’t test that particular route; any preplanned route would have been moot after the third pub anyway.

Once you’ve created a route you can access it via a Symbian Series 60 phone using the Nokia Maps application, which is already available.

The goal is to extend the Nokia Maps experience to the PC, Nokia executives said, not to replace Google Maps.

But when I pressed them on the application’s ability to integrate with other web applications, the answers were telling.

Halbherr said the initial version of Maps on Ovi will not include links with other apps, but that the company is planning on publishing an API that will let web developers write applications that can interface with it, either on the PC or on Nokia handsets.

Those applications may include social-media services, reviews sites, mashups and more — but not Google Maps.

That’s because Google Maps has its own implementation of the map data from Navteq (the same service used by Nokia, by the way), and the routes it calculates won’t be the same as Nokia’s.

But more importantly, Google is Nokia’s competitor in the game of controlling the next-generation computing platform. And Nokia clearly wants to own the platform upon which other people’s applications will run.

"Yelp is just a mashup. Twitter is just a mashup. If they want to make their applications work with our APIs, great," said Halbherr. "But Google is our competitor."

In this vision, people don’t create content on PCs (blogs, maps) and then access it on their handsets (via mobile-friendly sites). In Nokia’s world, people create content on their phones (photos, videos, data about where in the world they are) and then access it on their PCs (via social media sites like Ovi).

The vision is compelling because it matches the way people actually use their phones, rather than the way engineers think about designing mobile apps. And if anyone can be a credible competitor to Google, Nokia certainly can, with its ability to deploy software and services to a vast army of Nokia phone users. After all, the company ships hundreds of millions of devices every year (and tens of millions of smartphones every quarter) and has an installed base that is probably well over a billion users.

But the claim also stretches the bounds of credulity, coming as it does from a company that so far has virtually no presence in the web world.

What do you think: Can Nokia deliver?

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Nokia to Tackle Google, First in Mapping, Then Everywhere