After years of being the auto industry’s mapmaker, Nokia(s nok) on Friday announced its intention to become a much bigger technological force in the vehicle. Nokia took the wraps off of Here Auto, an embedded infotainment and connected car system, which it hopes to sell to the world’s car manufacturers.
Nokia head of location and of commerce and Here EVP Michael Halbherr – who will be speaking at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in October — recently shared the Finnish phone maker’s broader connected car vision, which will eventually include autonomous driving and integrating the vehicle into future “smart city” networks. Today’s release of Here Auto is its first step down that path.
It’s hardly the self-driving car, but it’s Nokia entry into the growing field of internet-linked entertainment and navigation systems. What sets Nokia’s apart is its strong ties back to the cloud and Nokia’s core smartphone applications. According to Here VP of Connected Car Floris Van-De-Klashorst, in-dash infotainment systems have remained a throwback in a world of increasingly sophisticated connected devices. Here Auto, he claimed, is an attempt to replicate the same experience we get out of smartphones and tablets in the vehicle dashboard.
“People say they love their phones and they love their cars,” Van-De-Klashorst said. “But their relationship with their embedded car systems is ice cold.”
Linking the car to the cloud
As the name implies, Nokia’s Here mapping and navigation are at the heart of Here Auto. The in-dash software contains all of the key features of its Windows Phone 8 app, from 3D maps to real-time traffic, points of interest, street-level imaging and local business search.
But unlike other embedded navigation systems, Here Auto isn’t walled off, Van-De-Klashorst said. It’s the same app you access on the smartphone or through a PC browser. All of your bookmarked destinations, preferred routes, contacts and preferences are stored in the cloud and synced between devices. If you map out a route on your phone and PC, the same route will be waiting for in your car as soon as it connects to the network. If the car loses its connection to the internet, the most recent route maps and settings remain saved in the car’s memory.
Van-De-Klashorst said Here Auto is more than just a navigation system; it’s designed to be a full-fledged platform for hosting any manner of infotainment app. Here Auto isn’t an operating system itself; rather it’s an application abstraction layer that can be built over whatever embedded OS its automaker partners use. While Nokia has partnered with Microsoft(s msft) closely in smartphones, that won’t be the case in vehicles. Here Auto will work over Microsoft’s Windows embedded automotive OS, but it will meld just as easily with BlackBerry’s QNX car system, Van-De-Klashorst said.
Nokia is releasing a software development kit (SDK) and set of application programming interfaces (APIs) so app makers can build their apps directly into Here Auto. Those apps could be stand-alone entertainment apps such as audio streaming and internet radio services, or they could meld with Here’s core mapping features. For instance, Foursquare could design an automotive version of its app that shows all of your friends’ check-ins on the map display and could even route you directly to the last place a specific friend checked in.
While it’s going to be pretty obvious to most consumers that Nokia is the brains behind the system, it isn’t Nokia’s intent to put its brand forward, Van-De-Klashorst said. Nokia will sell the automakers Here Auto just as its Navteq division sold them maps for their own nav systems. Automakers can customize the platform, adding their own apps and user interfaces. They’ll run their own developer programs and chose what third party apps make it into the dashboard. They’ll sell the services to drivers under their own pricing models. And ultimately they’ll put their brands in the forefront.
Nokia is releasing a white-label companion app for iOS(s aapl), Android(s goog), Windows Phone and web, which will act as the mobile and PC browser mirrors of the in-car system. It will contain the core Here mapping software along with any vehicle specific apps created by the automaker including telematics services such as remote unlock, remote engines start and fuel/battery power gauges.
A first look
At Nokia’s Here HQ in Chicago, I got a demo of how the system works. Keep in mind we were in a conference room, not in a moving car, but I did get a preview of how Here Auto would work both within and outside of the car.
A Here exec showed me how you could map a route on the iPad and save that route into your favorites, where it moments later appeared on the mocked-up dashboard screen. Here Auto then ‘guided’ us to Nordstrom’s downtown and into a parking lot. It automatically saved the parking spot’s location on the map, and then handed the nav over to the Here app on a Nokia Lumia phone.
The smartphone app then provided walking directions into the store using its indoor mapping technology. At the end of our virtual shopping expedition, Here directed us back to the car, not only showing us the route on a map but its relative direction in my field of vision through Nokia’s City Lens augmented reality app.
It was obviously a canned demo, but if Here Auto can pull all of that off in the real world, it will have quite the impressive system on its hands.
The question is whether the automakers will buy it. Most of the major automakers have already developed or are developing their own in-dash systems, and some of them — like Ford(s f) and GM(s gm) — have already begun opening up those platforms to developers. While Van-De-Klashorst said Here is already in discussions with several automakers, Nokia’s entry into the embedded infotainment system market might be a bit late.
Still, as Van-De-Klashorst points out, drivers are hardly in love with their with nav systems and infotainment services. For many of them, Nokia Auto could be a big upgrade that connects their vehicles to a much broader ecosystem of smartphones and mobile apps.
Nokia has shown it can play nice with the automakers’ business models when it comes to maps. Now it just needs to convince them to let Nokia expand its presence on the dashboard.