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Nokia Maps a Course for Its Location Business, Unveils “Here” Cloud Service

Aiming to make better use of its location assets, Nokia on Tuesday introduced a cloud-based service called Here.

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop has said that location will be one of five key businesses for Nokia going forward, alongside smartphones, basic phones, patents and cellular infrastructure.

Nokia powers maps for Rand McNally, Garmin, Bing, Yahoo Maps and others, and its map business has been growing, Elop said, noting that there has been 75 times more usage in the last year alone over the prior year.

“Our location data is very, very fresh,” Elop said, speaking at a Nokia mapping event in San Francisco.

But the company can do more. “Maps and location experiences should inspire us to sense our world. That is what Nokia is doing.”

Here, Elop said, will work across multiple devices and operating systems. He has also made reference to the acquisition of a 3-D mapping service, promising more details to come.

The benefit of having its mapping know-how in a single cloud service is improved scale, Nokia said.

“We need to translate usage into better services,” said Michael Halbherr, the Nokia executive VP in charge of the new service.

Nokia also needs to get data from a variety of sources, from its own data-capturing cars to crowdsourced databases to users of its own services, Halbherr said.

Notes from the mapping event:

Update, 9:33 am PT: Nokia confirms that it has acquired Earthmine, a California-based 3-D mapping company.

9:35 am: Halbherr shows how mapping data can reveal a new road, suggesting when a map needs to be updated. He shows Ufa, a city in Russia that got a new road this year, indicating a need for the map to be updated.

The community can also help improve Nokia’s mapping in regions where the company doesn’t have good data, such as Myanmar. There, users have added more than 7,000 kilometers of road data. A map-creator tool combines satellite imagery with user-added information such as the street name and whether it is one-way or two-way.

Updates can appear in minutes or hours, Halbherr said. “We really want to build a community,” he said, noting that the company wants to offer reputation indices and give higher rights to those with a strong track record.

9:39 am: Nokia’s Here mapping service can be found here. The site allows users to get directions, build “collections” of favorite locations and help add their own contributions to Nokia’s maps with the map-creator tool.

9:44 am: An FAQ details some of Here’s new services, including hotel booking in some locations, and technical requirements of the service, including which browsers support which features.

9:47 am: Here’s the Web site for Earthmine, the 3-D mapping company Nokia has acquired.

9:49 am: Even though much of the intelligence is in the cloud, Halbherr said a good mapping service also needs to have offline capabilities, especially on the phone, for when service is spotty, or to avoid large charges when roaming internationally.

9:51 am: Nokia said it will make an Android software development kit available in 2013, to allow device makers to include Here services on their products.

9:53 am: Nokia is also announcing a partnership with Mozilla to bring Here maps to its Firefox OS.

9:55 am Nokia is planning an iOS mapping app that puts its HTML5-based service into a native app. That will require Apple’s approval, which Halbherr said the company expects in the next couple of weeks. It sounds like that Here app will have voice-guided walking — but not driving — directions.

9:56 am: Now up is Peter Skillman, head of design for Nokia’s location business. After Halbherr talked technical details, Skillman said he wants to talk about the broader experience.

We want a better way to answer the questions you have during the day, Skillman said. The result is not a single mapping app, but many apps, depending on whether one wants a taco or transit directions home.

“It’s not just a place that’s alive, but a place with context,” Skillman said.

10:04 am: Skillman shows the site in 3-D, as the crowd puts on old-fashioned red-and-blue glasses.

He then notes the iOS experience, saying Nokia is doing that on the off-chance that there might be a few iPhone owners who want better mapping. He shows live traffic, public transit and other features not found in Apple maps. There are turn-by-turn driving directions, but the voice-guided navigation is only for walking.

10:10 am: Clicking on a spot in the iOS app will bring up the 25 most popular places nearby. In some cases, such as malls, Nokia has in-venue maps.

10:28 am: Nokia plans to expand its augmented-reality technology beyond the City Lens app and into its core maps application, and eventually allow other people to build their own apps around the know-how.

Skillman shows off a variety of potential uses for the technology, including tagging photos with a location and tagging your car so you’ll remember where it was parked.

10:30 am: Oprah time, as the company says it is handing out Nokia Lumia 920s to the crowd.

10:31 am: Q&A time, but Elop is not out for questions, at least not yet.

When it comes to indoor locations, there are 18,000 buildings covered so far, Nokia says.

Finally, someone asks about the business model. We haven’t heard a single question about dollars.

“We are a technology licensing company,” Nokia exec Halbherr says, but doesn’t give a ton of details. The iOS app is free for the consumer, with the potential to make money from advertising or deals.

10:43 am: Asked about the fact that some of its rivals have higher-resolution imagery, Halbherr said that Nokia plans to increase that over time.

And, with that, time to map a course to the Diet Coke.

The event is still taking place. Check back for updates.

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