Did Nokia miss the bus by offering free navigation too late?

21 Jan

Today, Nokia announced that it will offer its turn-by-turn, voice-enabled navigation service called Ovi Maps free of cost to consumers. At the moment, the free navigation service can be used on 10 Nokia smartphones that are already out there and all GPS-enabled Nokia smartphones that are shipped from March this year would have it pre-embedded. While this, no doubt, is a great news, but I just wonder whether Nokia missed the bus of capturing the market by offering it for free right from day one.

A bit of history: While Google Maps has been around for ages, Nokia’s ‘navigation’ solution (emphasis on the word navigation) was much better from the beginning as it provided voice-enabled turn-by-turn navigation for over 100 countries. Nokia even went to the extent of acquiring Navteq, which provided the crucial map data on which its solution was based. However, Nokia decided to charge consumers by making them purchase a licence if they wanted to use turn-by-turn navigation though one could still do the routing without paying up. Now Google was also offering routing for free, which did not give consumers a reason enough to buy a Nokia ‘navigator’ phone when you could do it on any other phone with Google Maps.

Now consider this. Today, Google already provides Street View and voice-based turn-by-turn navigation in the US, where Nokia continues to struggle to gain a foothold. Could the story have been different had Nokia just provided free navigation and include the cost in the price of the device while Google was not offering navigation? Well, that’s what it is likely to do now, as you may remember ‘nothing comes for free’.

Coming back to the present, I believe that Nokia has finally done the right thing and at probably the right possible time, considering that Android is eating whatever share Apple had left of Nokia’s smartphone pie. Free navigation will help Nokia make consumers focus at navigation in markets like India, where they still own over 60 percent of marketshare. It will give Nokia a better selling point than others that include the iPhone as well as smartphones based on Android and WinMo.

I tried the new Ovi Maps services for a while today and was left pretty impressed by the solution. To be frank, it looked very un-Nokia like with a clean interface and everything accessible within a click or two. Nokia is also providing some ‘premium’ content for free, which includes location-based content from Lonely Planet, Michellin and Burrp, the last one being India-centric and shows the closest places to eat as well as events happening around you.

In short, everything seems to be working fine (we’ll try posting a detailed review in the coming days). What remains to be seen is how Nokia can capitalise on it and whether it is capable of delivering cheap, GPS-enabled phones (I’m talking sub-$200) with free navigation on it. Also, it would be interesting if Nokia could come up with a mini application store within Ovi Maps that has some applications built on top of the service. Think about geo-tagged Tweets that show up on the map, augimented reality apps and stuff like that. That could possibly be one of the money-minting avenues for Nokia. Just a word of advice – keep that part of the application store within Ovi Maps and not on the Ovi Store. Wishful thinking, I guess but nevertheless.

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