With New Ovi Maps, Nokia Seeks Location Heaven

Nokia's Ovi Maps

In an attempt to ward off competition from the likes of Google (s goog), Nokia (s NOK), the largest maker of mobile phones, has released the latest version of its Ovi Maps software and made the app available for free. Nokia, despite an early start in the mobile phone-focused maps and navigation space, has lost attention to Google and Apple’s (s aapl) mapping and navigation efforts.

With the new Ovi Maps app, the company is hitting back, especially at Google. More importantly, it’s Nokia’s big chance to become the GPS device maker of choice in countries where standalone navigation devices are still hard to find.

“Maps and navigation are as core and natural in a phone as digital cameras,” Tero Ojanperä, Nokia’s EVP of services, said to me about Nokia’s new release. “We think that the mobile phone-based navigation market is about to take off in a big way. GPS is now commonplace and average consumers are perfectly comfortable with navigation systems, but more importantly complete solutions are finally coming to market.”

I would agree — and I think it’s further bad news for the standalone GPS companies such as Tom Tom and Garmin. As I said earlier, 2010 is shaping up to be the year of location.

In an interview last year, Ojanperä said, “We want maps to be part of everyday life, and as a result, we are working on building a richer experience on top of the map…I think it is going to become obvious that companies with mapping assets are at an advantage.” Nokia bought gate5 and Navteq as part of its efforts to get a toehold in mapping and location-based services.

If gate5 gave the company the ability to build maps into mobile phones, Navteq is giving it a lot of contextual information and up-to-the minute maps. Ojanperä said that while it’s easy to build a mapping navigation, there needs to be enough intelligence built into the mapping and navigation systems to provide context to location. Navteq provides exactly that.

For instance, he pointed out that the new Ovi Maps have the ability to add location context to your Facebook status messages. This feature is called Share Location via Ovi Maps. How it works is that if I’m eating at Delfina Pizzeria on 18th Street in San Francisco and say so on Facebook, my friends would know exactly where I am, instead of seeing a bunch of numbers. The reason Nokia is able to do this is primarily because it’s constantly collecting local data via its Navteq division.

“Coordinates don’t mean anything, but social location makes everything interesting,” Ojanperä said. With the new software, Ojanperä believes that Nokia is pushing mapping and location into a new phase, one in which advertising will also become part of the whole experience.

During our conversation, Ojanperä made no bones of hiding about his scorn for Google. For starters he pointed out that Nokia has over 84 million GPS-enabled devices in the market.  Google Maps Navigation, he said, is only available for a handful of device in one country in one language.

In comparison, he said that the new Ovi Maps includes essential car and pedestrian navigation features, such as turn-by-turn voice guidance for 74 countries in 46 languages, traffic information for more than 10 countries and detailed maps for more than 180 countries.

As of March, the new Nokia GPS-enabled smartphones will include the new version of Ovi Maps along with Lonely Planet and Michelin travel guides at no extra cost. More importantly, Ojanperä said that Nokia’s software was superior to Google because the company used hybrid vector maps, which are high-quality vectors that are stored into the device.

In comparison, Google Maps Navigation has to download maps constantly over a network connection.  It doesn’t matter if your don’t have a 3G connection or have lost data connectivity, the basic functionality of Ovi Maps will work, Nokia claims. This low data consumption model is something carriers are going to love, Ojanperä said. Why? Because it will save them money on network costs, as explained by this image.

Another reason why carriers are going to love Ovi Maps: It will help them sell data upgrades to voice-centric customers, even in emerging markets such as India and China where standalone GPS devices have yet to become commonplace, unlike in the U.S. and Europe. To me, this is Nokia’s big opportunity.