Cutting Room: Is navigation Nokia’s road to riches?

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After a year in which Nokia seemed to have thrown in the towel and given up all pretence of being a world-beating mobile phone manufacturer, a breakthrough announcement of some kind was long overdue.

On the face of it, the distribution of free voice navigation in 74 countries and maps for 18 countries does appear to be a game changer. After all, why would anyone want to spend money on a PND (Personal Navigation Device) when they can have the same application for now on their handset?

Could that thudding noise you hear be the sound of Garmin and TomTom’s share price hitting the floor? Not necessarily.

While Nokia (and recently Google) has launched free navigation, there is as much chance of Ovi Maps and Google Maps replacing dedicated navigation devices as there is of mobile phones completely replacing cameras and iPods.

As with any integrated solution, the sum of the parts is not necessarily greater than the whole. Nokia vice president Anssi Vanjoki makes a convincing case for the launch of free Ovi Maps on a select range of devices. “This is a game-changing move. By leveraging our Navteq acquisition we can now put a complete navigation system in the palm of your hand wherever in the world you are whenever you need it and at no extra cost.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But let’s examine the reality a little closer.

Ovi and Google maps are indeed superb for pedestrian navigation. But, when it comes to driving, a standalone device will win out every time for convenience, safety, quality of maps, and ease of use.

Example? The latest navigation devices have textto- speech (ie names of streets are announced over the unit’s speaker). Neither do they rely on downloading location information and mapping data over the air. So they are not compromised in areas of poor coverage and network quality.

So, while the announcement that mapping for mobile phone users looks like a free application, I would bet most motorists will prefer to use dash-mounted devices with large screens, voice activation, full post-code search, and the aforementioned text-to-speech.

And of course, there is the matter that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’. So, how much longer will it be before a free location-based service starts carrying mandatory advertising as well as the usual routing benefit.

Think about it. You plot a course from London to Birmingham, and the network starts delivering advertised points of interest such as restaurants and shops along the way. Google Maps and Ovi Maps may provide a good journey summary. But what happens when you want to quickly divert from motorway to an A road? Where is the dynamic Traffic Message Channel re-routing on a smartphone?

And, if you get a phone call mid-journey, you’ll usually find the map application quits or moves off-screen until the call is over. How much fun will it be negotiating a challenging junction in a strange city and lose all navigation data when the phone signals an incoming call?

As Jon Morris, editor of What Mobile, points out: “Ovi Maps can crash and subsequently exit without warning. Generally speaking, standalone Personal/ Portable Navigation Devices (PNDs) don’t go wrong. A recent model of TomTom will also offer things like MapShare and HD Traffic, along with many other things of real benefit to a driver.

“Ovi Maps is slow to re-route if you make a wrong turn and the speech instructions are fixed, so forget about the reading aloud of traffic information, road names or other important details.

“Nokia says the PND is dead. For anyone that actually drives, I think there might be a few who would vehemently disagree.”

There is also the legal nicety that it is against the law to use your mobile phone when driving. How does Nokia think we should respond to the police officer who has just pulled us over after seeing us operate our Ovi Maps phone to get directions? “It’s a phone Sir That’s three points on your licence. Sign here please”.

I have been using Ovi Maps on my N97 mini all week. It’s going to be fantastic to use on foot in a strange country. When I’m in the car I’ll stick to my TomTom Classic.

 

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