With its handset business now history, the Finnish company is trying to position itself as a key player in location-based services. Nokia's Here is more ambitious than meets the eye, writes Karthik Subramanian

Think Nokia, and like most people out there, the first image that comes to my mind is that of my first mobile handset. Sturdy as a stone and always reliable. The stress tests that Nokia phones are subjected to are legendary. One can even find videos on YouTube about it.

Which is why Nokia selling off its handset business to Microsoft last month was bittersweet news to me.

So what remains at Nokia after its handset division moved out? Three wings, apparently: Its location and commerce business branded Here, its infrastructure business solutions, and a separate division handling its patents.

Last week, Michael Halbherr, the international head of Here, was in Mumbai for an interaction with a select group of journalists to explain the brand's strategy. (Have to add here that it was a rare opportunity to pick the brains of a senior executive who is leading the technology front. During most interactions with the media, the sales and marketing heads dole out numbers and projections.)

It was still a very short interaction and one that Halbherr started by addressing the elephant in the room. “Nokia is a 150-year-old company that has been continuously evolving and at times offloading some businesses is just a part of the strategy,” he said, in what was corporate speak for “Let us not really get into the 'why' and 'why not' surrounding the handset business deal with Microsoft.

Deeply entrenched

Nokia's aggressive branding of Here, its location and commerce, is relatively new but its foray into the mapping services is not. Its free digital map and navigation services, after it took over Navteq in 2007, has always been in the background.

According to Halbherr, Nokia has been creating “the most true-to-life index of the world” over the past six years, commissioning 6,000 full-time staff on the project and having spent close to six billion Euros in that time. The numbers, naturally, are impressive: 196 countries mapped, 94 countries with auto grade maps, 43 million kilometres of road, 20 billion probes per month (to help track traffic, etc.) and 2.7 million changes per day.

Now if you are still smirking at the numbers and wondering what the fuss is all about, well here is the deal. Almost all the big technology companies focus on maps as a gateway to commerce. With mobile computing devices outselling desktop computers since 2013, the entire e-commerce and services paradigm on computers will revolve round location, and almost everyone from Google Maps, Apple Maps, Nokia Here, Bing Maps, Open Street Maps are vying for a footprint.

For the sake of brevity and clarity, I cornered Halbherr after the media interaction, for exactly a minute that his team allowed me to, and asked him to break down the proposition 'Here' presented in layman's terms. “Think of every thing you do online, and deconstruct it to the most basic questions — what, where, when, why, who and how. 'Here' is trying to build data flow around the 'where'.”

Cloud service

What Here is trying to do is to map the data of the world surrounding one's location-based access to the Web. Just the same way as Facebook is trying to map the data using one's social connections, and Amazon is trying to map the data using one's shopping preferences.

And what it entails for the user is the possibility of newer means to search for information. Developers can use the data feeds off Here to create newer experiences that will work across platforms (smartphones, tablets, desktops, laptops and in-deck car navigation systems).

Nokia Here is trying to consolidate its backbone infrastructure. In order to make its maps as accurate as possible, the company is reaching out to get community involvement to improve the accuracy of its maps. (see box).

The future of computing is hyper local. The race is on among the tech giants to leverage their properties to reflect hyper local realities. What Here and similar companies are attempting to do is trying to bring to the maps on our mobile phones information about the local kirana stores and not just the big names and brands of the world.

The writer attended the media interaction with Michael Halbherr at the invitation of Nokia.

Community mapping

Here has launched a community mapping pilot programme for India, to combine its industrial data collection methods with a crowd-mapping initiative. It has tied up with educational institutions, including Mount Carmel College in Bangalore and the SAL Institute of Technology in Ahmedabad, where amateur cartographers will be given access to Map Creator to prune and shape accurate local maps. The inclusions and deletions would be moderated before being effected in the Maps database.

Here executive and a spokesperson of the SAL Institute of Technology said the initiative was to 'humanise' the maps, apart from effecting practical changes.

To a question on why the students and amateurs should help Here and not the open source Open Street Maps project, Halbherr said the maps itself were being offered free of cost. Besides, he argued that the rights-free open source Open Streets project suffered from lack of dedicated attention that Here Maps could provide given its team of full-time staff and years of attention.