It's impossible to create a perfect map, but that hasn't stopped Nokia from trying. Here, we go inside the company's neverending drive to create a digital copy of the world.
Apple's maps are bad. Even Tim Cook knows this and apologized for them. Google's maps are good, thanks to years of work, massive computing resources, and thousands of people handcorrecting map data.
But there are more than two horses in the race to create an index of the physical world. There's a third company that's invested billions of dollars, employs thousands of mapmakers, and even drives around its own version of Google's mythic "Street View" cars.
That company is Nokia, the still-giant but oft-maligned Finnish mobile phone maker, which acquired the geographic information systems company Navteq back in 2007 for $8 billion. That's only a bit less than the Nokia's current market value of a bit less than $10 billion, which is down 93 percent since 2007. This might be bad news for the company's shareholders, but if a certain tech giant with a massive interest in mobile content (Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo) were looking to catch up or stay even with Google, the company's Location & Commerce unit might look like a nice acquisition they could get on the cheap (especially given that the segment lost 1.5 billion euros last year). Microsoft and Yahoo are already thick as thieves with Nokia's mapping crew, but Apple is the company that needs the most help.
Business considerations aside, I'm fascinated by the process of mapping. What seems like a rather conventional exercise turns out to be the very cutting edge of mixed reality, of translating the human world and logic into databases that computers can use. And the best part is, unlike web crawlers, which were totally automated, indexing the physical world still requires people heading out on the roads and staring at imagery on computers back at the home office.
As I described last month, Google has spent literally tens of thousands of person-hours creating its maps. I argued that no other company could beat Google at this game, which turned out to be my most controversial assertion. People pointed out that while Google's driven 5 million miles in Street View cars, UPS drives 3.3 billion miles a year. Whoever had access to these other datasets might be in the mapping (cough) driver's seat.