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Bing Maps To Be Powered (Replaced) By Nokia?

I had a chance lunch with a person with close connections to Nokia about a week ago. Naturally we began talking about the outlook for the Microsoft-Nokia Windows Phone deal. He was hopeful but mindful of the risks for both companies. Our conversation eventually turned to a discussion of Nokia’s mapping division Navteq and what role it would play in the relationship.

He told me some things that I found basically shocking.

Details Are Vague

I had generally been aware that Nokia Maps would be a part of the deal somehow. (Nokia spent $8 billion to acquire Navteq in October, 2007.) However I had not paid close attention to the details — nor were there many specifics originally released.

The initial missive from CEOs Ballmer and Elop said the following about maps collaboration online and in mobile:

Nokia Maps will be a core part of Microsoft’s mapping services. For example, Maps would be integrated with Microsoft’s Bing search engine and adCenter advertising platform to form a unique local search and advertising experience.

There were a number of other vague statements made at the time and during press conferences held immediately following the Nokia-Microsoft announcement earlier this year. Articles reporting on the sweeping deal were similarly short on details. For example, a March 7 article in BusinessWeek said this about the maps angle:

Microsoft will use Nokia’s Navteq mapping products for functions such as geolocation services and selling local advertising and coupons tied to a user’s position. If successful, that also could generate additional revenue for Nokia, which will share in the sales . . .

Source: Nokia Will Become the Back End of Bing Maps

However my lunch companion argued unequivocally that Nokia Maps would effectively replace almost everything that Microsoft had developed over the past several years in terms of the Bing Maps infrastructure. This was shocking because Microsoft has invested hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) in creating a viable competitor to Google Maps. Most recently the company has been promoting its roll out of new hi-resolution aerial imagery on a global basis.

I said I couldn’t believe Microsoft would agree to swap in Navteq for the guts of its own system. Yet my lunch guest argued that Microsoft’s role would mostly center on the Bing Maps UI — ironically not unlike Yahoo’s relationship to Microsoft search results — everything else would be powered by Nokia.

And there was another very interesting remark. He asserted that Google’s unwillingness to agree to a co-mingling of Google Maps and Nokia Maps or substitution of Nokia Maps on the back end was one of the sticking points that prevented Nokia and Google from coming to terms.

Speaking of Yahoo, Nokia will be the mapping infrastructure and exclusive maps content provider to Sunnyvale. This was announced in May 2010; but unlike Microsoft Yahoo stopped competing with Google in mapping a long time ago. As an aside, Yahoo Maps should become better and could get access to new Nokia 3D city imagery and street-level photography from Navteq.

Maps a Key Battleground between Google and Microsoft

Microsoft has made maps a key battleground with Google. It has aggressively invested in technology, state-of-the art imagery and 3D cities in an effort to create a more compelling product than Google offers. In fact the company has created a very strong product, with features lacking in Google Maps. But Microsoft has done a generally poor job of marketing Bing Maps to the public.

While the Yahoo announcement says, “Nokia will be the exclusive, global provider of Yahoo!’s maps and navigation services, integrating Ovi Maps across Yahoo! properties, branded as ‘powered by Ovi,’” there is no comparable language in the Microsoft-Nokia deal that I’ve seen. But my lunch companion was arguing it would be largely the same, although he did acknowledge there were still details to be worked out.

I then sought to get verification of this very surprising revelation from other people at Microsoft and Nokia. Microsoft offered me the following general statement in email:

Bing Maps has utilized Nokia content for road data, geo-coding and routing services for several years, through Nokia’s Navteq vector data business, relying on the quality of its data for core location services. The Nokia/MS partnership will enable deeper collaboration in the future.

No One Is Confident

I then spoke to several people at Nokia and Navteq. There was clearly some awkwardness in speaking directly about this topic. No one wanted to say anything public.

The people I talked to said, effectively, that the details haven’t been worked out and that much remained to be seen and negotiated. Accordingly, I sensed that there is some maneuvering and politicking going on right now around the precise division of labor between and within the companies. One of the people I spoke to argued, however, that Microsoft was eager to be free of the costs associated with the high-end features of digital mapping.

The deeper I got into this issue the more vague and uncertain it all seemed, with lots of qualifiers and hedging coming from several of the insiders I spoke to. So we probably won’t know who’s doing what until we see it online over the course of the coming year.

Yet most consumers won’t notice or care who provides the data and who provides the interface on Bing Maps — provided it all “works” as advertised. However there is potentially a great deal at stake for insiders at both Nokia and Microsoft, which have each made massive investments in their mapping platforms and together have hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of jobs associated with online and mobile mapping.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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