What Nokia's free sat-nav means for smartphones

I've just left Nokia's official launch of its free Ovi Maps service. It means free maps and turn-by-turn naviagition to all of its current Symbian han

Nokia's clearly smarting from its failures at the top end of the mobile market. With Apple, Blackberry and Google all growing at a faster rate, the Finns realised they need to do something. The answer, it seems, is to give away the turn-by-turn navigation it once charged for. New Nokia smartphones will even ship with continental maps in the box, so you won't have to waste time and money downloading them from Nokia's servers.

The new UI looks a lot slicker, too, with separate views for driving and walking, which both feature 3D landmarks and points of interest plus live information taken from Time Out, Michelin and Lonely Planet. Facebook is also integrated, so you can share you location with your friends and stalkers.

Of course, Nokia is hardly blazing a trail here - Google announced a similar, fee navigation service as part of its Android 2.0 software. Although it's currently only available in America, there's no doubt it'll land in Europe sometime soon.

Which leaves Apple out in the cold. Unlike Google and Nokia, Apple doesn't own a mapping service - instead, it makes huge amounts of money by taking a 30% cut of every £50 iPhone app TomTom sells. So will Apple be forced to respond by paying TomTom for a free app instead? It seems unlikely. Although with TomTom's share price in freefall, perhaps a firesale buyout isn't out of the question.

More likely, Apple will encourage Google to improve its mapping service on the iPhone. After all, Google is only in the smartphone business to sell advertising. It won't worry too much whether its ads are servce on an iPhone or an Android mobile.

Google knows that the future of advertising on mobile is all about location. That's why it's invested so much money in maps, streetview and now - with Google Goggles - augmented reality. Location-based search is just as useful - and far more lucrative - than satellite navigation on a mobile.

Which is why I asked Nokia's boss Anssi Vanjoki whether Nokia hoped to recoup the costs of its new mapping service just through handset sales, or whether it would be inserting advertising onto Nokia Maps. He responded that there were no plans for advertising immediately, but it was possible in the future. If I were him, I wouldn't wait: I already use Google Maps search more than the standard browser search when I'm out and and about, and I'm not alone. It can't be long before the ads appear.

But Vanjoki also pointed out that Ovi Maps is a development framework, and Nokia expects a new generation of location-based apps. And suddenly the whole offering falls into place. Because however good (or otherwise) Nokia's own software is, its smartphones are doomed to be also-rans unless the pace of app development begins to catch up with Android and iPhone.