Nokia, Apple, Google Reshaping Mobile Map, GPS Landscape

Moves by Nokia, Apple and Google to improve mobile mapping services suggest a future with ubiquitous access to directions, but user content will be a critical component.

If Nokia, Google and Apple have their way, driving directions may never be the same.

This week handset maker Nokia announced the launch of an updated version of Ovi Maps that offers free walking and driving navigation to users of Nokia GPS-enabled smartphones. Starting in March, Ovi Maps will be preloaded on all smartphones with a map of the country the phone was bought in, as well as information from partners such as or dining review guide Michelin.

As more and more handsets become equipped with mapping applications (and the location-based services that come with them), the social and business implications of this proliferation of GPS technology suggest a more connected and closely watched world.

Google Maps, the mapping program from the search engine giant, is currently available around eight mobile platforms, including BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Apple's iPhone operating system. In October 2009, Google announced Google Maps Navigation, a Web-based GPS for its open-source Android mobile phone operating system. It offers features such as 3D views, turn-by-turn voice guidance and automatic rerouting, but Google said unlike most navigation systems, Maps Navigation was built from the ground up to take advantage of a phone's Internet connection, like automatic business and traffic updates.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is attempting to lure users away from Google Maps to its own mapping service, Bing Maps, with a $100 gift card competition. A quick check of Apple's App Store reveals 174 mapping applications, ranging from speed trap warning apps to fast food and free Wi-Fi finders.

And, indeed, the future battle for mobile mapping supremacy may boil down to two aspects: User-generated content and location-based service technology.

Companies such as Apple, Yahoo and especially Google have invested large sums of money in location-based services. Apple recently filed a patent for technology regarding parking and location management processes and alerts, where a mobile device could track a present position and adjust for an absolute reminder time to account for travel times.

Cowen & Co., an industry analyst firm that specializes in covering Web services, published a research note citing Google's Streetview and public transportation services as main reasons for its success and its continuing investment in improving its mapping solution. Google's location-based features on its maps, like many of the App Store's location apps, rely on the input of its users for reviews, descriptions and up-to-date information.

As the number of mobile devices with embedded GPS technology increases, the benefits of location-based services are likely to increase as more on-the-ground information is gathered. According to ABI Research, the number of subscribers to handset-based location based services doubled in 2008 to more than 18 million. While navigation continued to lead in terms of total subscribers, two other application areas -- enterprise and community (including social networking) -- posted the highest year-to-year growth rates.

In addition, a 2009 report by research firm Gartner said worldwide consumer location-based services (LBS) subscribers and revenue are on pace to double, and predicted that advertising-based or "free" LBS (disregarding data charges by mobile carriers) will gain more traction as users adopt it as a way to limit costs.

"The competitive landscape will change and most mobile carriers need to alter their approach toward offering LBS and dealing with developers," wrote senior research analyst Annette Zimmermann.

"Subscriber growth will hinge on -free' - disregarding data charges - services. Mobile operators' initiatives to open up the application programming interface (API) to third-party developers will help them compete against other players in the market and will also be beneficial to the different parties involved, down to the end user."