Why (and how) the Apple Maps debacle should be Nokia’s gain

Apple might be the most lionized company in tech, but it has limped through a week of unwanted headlines: ITworld calls the new offering a debacle, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple had made a wrong turn and Forbes claimed the error-prone app points the way to mediocrity in a post-Jobs era.

These kinds of fumbles are often over-hyped in the world of tech – particularly when they involve an iconic brand – but it doesn’t appear that any quick fix is in the offing. Google isn’t rushing to make its mobile mapping app available on iOS 6, opting instead to leverage its edge as a key differentiator for Android. Meanwhile, Apple appears to be targeting former Google Maps developers to build out its offering – a move that would indicate much work is still needed to close the gap between the two apps.

Maps: The newest weapon in the mobile OS war

And maps have become a vital part of the mobile data explosion. ComScore reported earlier this year that 35 percent of smartphone users are accessing maps on their handsets, marking a 55 percent surge over the previous year. Nielsen recently reported that Google Maps accounts for a whopping 78 percent of all mobile time spent accessing travel information. It’s no surprise, then, that maps are a powerful weapon in the mobile platform wars, as Apple’s move to create its own solution illustrates.

Google isn’t the only player who can benefit from Apple’s misstep, though. Third-party developers such as Waze, which makes an impressive crowd-sourced traffic app, are already taking advantage of the opportunity to tout their own solutions. But the biggest winners here are likely to be Nokia and Windows Phone.

While it doesn’t get much recognition in the U.S. market, Nokia has spent an enormous amount of money over the last several years to build a solid foundation in mapping and navigation. In addition to its $8.1 billion acquisition of Navteq in 2007, it picked up smaller players such as gate5, Plazes and Dopplr. It integrated those businesses last year with the formation of its “Location & Commerce” division. And the Finnish manufacturer has made headway recently by inking deals with Amazon, Ford Motor Co., Groupon and Flickr.

Perhaps the biggest deal Nokia has notched in the last few months, though, is the one it secured with Microsoft to replace Bing Maps on Windows Phone 8. That deal will begin to bear fruit in a few weeks as the upgraded operating hits the market. And that tie-up will build on the presence of Nokia Drive, the voice-guided GPS navigation app that already claims space on the home screen of its Lumia line of smartphones.

Tying Nokia’s brand to Windows Phone

For Nokia to truly take advantage of Apple’s stumble, though, it will have to push its own brand even as it works with its Windows Phone partners to market the overall platform. The company has wisely moved this direction with its decision to make Nokia Drive available to all Windows Phone 8 manufacturing partners, including HTC and Samsung. It should continue to move aggressively toward tying its brand to every map and navigational screen delivered through Windows Phone 8. And it should do everything it can to make sure consumers understand that Nokia Maps is an integral part of the upgraded operating system.

Windows Phone still faces an uphill battle, obviously. Android and iOS continue to gain momentum, leaving many consumers with the impression that the smartphone market is simply a two-horse race. But both platforms have their flaws, and an opportunity still exists for a third operating system to emerge as a real contender. Windows Phone has the technological muscle, the industry support and the developer ecosystem to become that third platform. And that would give Nokia a huge opportunity not just to sell more phones, but to become a major player in the all-important segment of mobile maps.

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Colin Gibbs

Colin Gibbs

Mobile Curator Gigaom Network

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