Nokia opens up Here platform with an eye to the future

Nokia(s nok) has used Mobile World Congress to unveil a series of new devices, taking some of its high-end Windows Phone features to lower price points. The standouts there are the Lumia 720, which offers a camera with good low light capabilities at $329 before subsidies and taxes, and the Lumia 520, which will be Nokia’s new cheapest Windows Phone at just $184.

This will help Nokia hang onto its position in emerging markets — good news for its fortunes in the next year or two. But the really interesting announcement from the Finnish firm today was that it is opening up its Here mapping, location-based services and augmented reality suite to other mobile platforms and to third-party developers who might now be able to use it for innovative applications. This is a much more long-term play.

“By gaining scale, we can increase the quality and quantity of the data we receive,” Nokia CEO Stephen Elop told his audience here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. That’s a valid motivation and, along with the potential new Here services that third-party developers will create, this move will probably make Nokia’s devices more attractive. It also gives Nokia a serious platform that is abstracted from the underlying smartphone OS. But greater exposure for this core Nokia service could also serve as a hedge against a post-smartphone future.

Bear with me here.

The more I think about Google Glass and the wearables revolution that it presages, the likelier it seems to me that “glass” will eventually supersede the smartphone. With the rise of tablets, particularly small tablets, a vast amount of functionality is now being replicated across two devices that people carry around with them regularly. Smart glass could take over some of the functionality that today works better on the handset – particularly talking, navigation and simple messaging – leaving web surfing and gaming for the bigger screen, with less overall overlap.

If that happens, if people have maps in front of their eyeballs more than they do now, if augmented reality becomes more than a nice idea with few essential use cases, then we’re looking at a wave of service innovation that is hard to imagine in the current smartphone paradigm. There will be limited opportunity for hardware differentiation — the quality of these core mapping and AR services will be where most of the action is.

Someone in the audience asked Elop today whether Nokia would bring out smart glass. “We clearly have established a pattern for being leaders in augmented reality,” he replied. “You can well imagine there’s a whole array of new experiences with new platforms coming in the future.”

A vague, non-committal answer, yes. But Elop and his company have clearly been thinking a lot about this trend. If they make Here the go-to location-based services and augmented reality platform, they’re as well placed as any to take advantage and maybe, just maybe, take the lead. The company has reinvented itself many times before, and it can certainly do so again.