HERE Maps update: Still confusing as ever

Today’s Microsoft-related news flurry concerns HERE Maps, and the PR fluff is flying. HERE Maps, which Nokia kept after selling off its phones businesses to Microsoft, started out as a Windows-Phone-first enterprise, but there was always some talk of bringing the service to other platforms. Microsoft has been licensing Nokia mapping technologies for its own mapping products, most notably Bing Maps, for a long time, and continues to do so. Although then-CEO Steve Ballmer fought to acquire the mapping business along with Nokia’s phones businesses, Nokia managed to hold on to them, but a licensing deal was struck and announced along with the acquisition:

Microsoft will grant Nokia reciprocal rights to use Microsoft patents in its HERE services. In addition, Nokia will grant Microsoft an option to extend this mutual patent agreement in perpetuity.

In addition, Microsoft will become a strategic licensee of the HERE platform, and will separately pay Nokia for a four-year license.

Ever since Nokia first started making Windows Phones, the various mapping products have been a source of confusion. Windows Phones initially used Bing Maps, but Nokia used Nokia maps on their Windows Phones, and the use of Bing Maps was subverted (although you could still get Bing Maps on your phone if you tried). Bing Maps is still prevalent, of course, on Bing via the web, and there although it has gone through a lot of fits and starts, including a move to WebGL, Bing even offers a 3D mapping experience, through the Bing Maps Preview app for Windows 8.1.

So while Bing Maps continues to push ahead, Nokia has pretty much taken over control of mapping experiences on Windows Phone. Much of the underlying technology is shared, but the experiences are different, and now it looks like Nokia may be backing off continued support for Windows Phone in order to concentrate on iOS and Android, much larger markets for the now independent mobile services company.

In a post today on The Next Web, author Paul Sawers interviewed Sean Fernback, Senior Vice President, Everyday Mobility, at Nokia’s HERE division, who let slip that Nokia was going to “wind down” development efforts for HERE Maps on Windows Phone to concentrate on iOS and Android:

“As a result of the transaction, we’re having to wind down our Windows Phone app development and shift it over towards Android and iOS,” explains Fernback.

Fernback did stress that support for Windows Phone isn’t being phased out completely, not at the moment at least. It’s just limiting the resources it throws at the platform, including time and money spent developing for it. “It’s a dialogue we’re having [with Microsoft], so we will see where it takes us,” he continues.

Fernback goes on to tell The Next Web that although “(HERE development) (is) just going to focus on the two – Android and iOS”, the Windows Phone HERE apps have “our brand on it so we need to look after it”.

While it’s certainly not surprising that Nokia both has only limited resources for map apps development, and is choosing to focus them on the by-far more popular platforms, the thought that Nokia will wind down development for Windows Phone was a bit of a PR hotspot, and Nokia PR quickly responded, as posted by Paul Thurrott, saying that “(w)e used to develop for ‘Windows Phone first’, now ‘all OS are equal’ “. But even the PR spin seems to be hinting that changes are in the works for mapping on Windows Phones:

We haven’t stopped developing for Windows Phone, but we are discussing with Microsoft how to proceed. At the end, whether as a HERE app or not, your location experience on Windows Phone will improve.

Microsoft’s four year agreement to use HERE Maps, in terms of app development and strategy, will be over in the blink of an eye.  It sure sounds like, as Nokia concentrates on iOS and Android, that Microsoft may be left to develop one mapping service, Bing Maps, across all its devices. Let’s hope so, anyway.