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Why Uber (and everyone else) wants to buy Nokia's maps

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Good maps are hard to find

Nokia's mapping technology is up for sale as the Finnish giant refocuses on network infrastructure, and Uber is reportedly willing to pay $3 billion for it. The taxi-hailing service is one of several companies rumored to be interested in Nokia's mapping business, known as Here, including Facebook, Baidu, and a consortium of German car manufacturers. Uber hasn't commented on the potential sale, which is rumored to be announced by the end of this month, but it's not hard to see why it would be interested.

Mapping is at the core of Uber's business. Its app has long been powered by Google Maps, in addition to mapping data from Apple and other companies, but its relationship with Google has recently chilled, with the two companies competing on new fronts. Earlier this year, Uber announced plans to develop self-driving car technology in partnership with Carnegie Mellon — a self-driving pioneer — and Google is reportedly looking to build its own self-driving taxi service.

"Uber would put it at the core of its own platform."

Google is still a major investor in Uber, which has been valued at $50 billion, and it may be premature to say the companies are "at war" over the future of transportation. But Uber has made recent moves to diversify its mapping services and bring them in-house. In March, the company acquired the mapping platform deCarta, and according to The New York Times, it's hired several mapping engineers in recent months.

Acquiring Here could create further distance from Google, while providing Uber with a major foothold in the world of in-car navigation. Although Here's €2 billion ($2.2 billion) value is a steep drop from the $8 billion Nokia paid for it in 2008, the service still controls more than 80 percent of the global market for in-car navigation systems, and earned revenue of $1.1 billion in 2014.

"Here has done ‘ok' as a consumer app," Julie Ask, a mobile analyst at Forrester Research, said in an email, adding that the service has suffered from a "lack of marketing [and] distribution as a native app on a small mobile OS." But she says it still offers a "toolbox of location technology" that would reduce Uber's dependence on third parties: "Uber would put it at the core of its own platform."

Other companies rumored to be involved in the bidding could use Here in different ways. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and other members of the German automotive consortium are developing autonomous driving technology, and may be wary of relying on mapping software from Google, which has self-driving aspirations of its own. Chinese companies Alibaba and Baidu, which are also rumored to be in the running, could use Here to expand their online services, Bloomberg reports. (Baidu is also working on self-driving technology of its own.)

"It's extraordinarily difficult to get this type of mapping data."

Much of Here's value derives from the scarcity of comprehensive mapping technologies, which require significant investment and infrastructure to develop. Here — which was acquired by Nokia as Navteq in 2008 — is one of just a handful of companies that have sought to create their own mapping systems, together with Google, TomTom, and Apple, whose Maps app has been plagued by bugs. "It's extraordinarily difficult to get this type of mapping data," Jamie Moss, an analyst at the research company Ovum, told The New York Times this month. "Other than Google, Here is one of the few companies that can offer this data right now."

That explains the buzz that Here's potential sale has generated among tech giants. Nokia has reportedly been pitching the unit to Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, which began using Here maps in some mobile services earlier this month under a partnership with the company. Here's troves of data on locations and businesses could prove valuable to web companies like Facebook and Amazon, though it's not yet clear whether either are looking to bid on it.

A crowded field of suitors
Owning Here would deliver obvious benefits for Uber's taxi services, which rely on real-time traffic data to match riders and track chauffeurs, though it could also figure prominently in Uber's plans to expand beyond transportation. "Uber is not a transport company, we don't own cars," Mark MacGann, Uber's head of public policy in Europe, Middle East, and Africa, told Bloomberg last month, echoing the company's go-to response to the myriad regulatory disputes it's faced across the world. Instead, Uber brands itself as a "technology company" built on logistical software that could extend beyond ride-sharing.

So far, Uber's expansion has focused on delivery. Its UberEats food delivery service is already available in select cities, and the company has reportedly begun testing same-day delivery (à la Amazon and Google) for high-end retailers. Acquiring Here would add a new layer of valuable location data that Uber could use to enhance its existing services or sell to third parties — and that value would only grow as Uber continues to enter new markets. But it's still unclear whether the company's deep war chest will be enough to fend off what appears to be a crowded field of suitors.

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