Should a map try and guess what you need before you ask? With Nokia's acquisition of Desti into its HERE mapping group, it will--and Windows Phone and Amazon will benefit.
Nokia said Friday that it had bought Desti, a spinoff from SRI International, the research lab that birthed Nuance and the Siri technology now built into the Apple iPhone. According to Nadav Gur, the founder of Desti, the technology is based on VPA, the Virtual Personal Assistant technology that was a "respin" of Siri by the SRI team after Siri was sold to Apple.
Why do maps need intelligence? According to Desti, it's to better anticipate your needs. The example the company uses is to understand whether you want a business hotel for a company trip, or an intimate boutique resort for a romantic getaway. (In 2013, Desti only "understood" locations in the West Coast and Hawaii, according to a video Desti posted, below.)
"The Desti technology will improve HERE's ability to process language more easily with natural language search capabilities because its artificial intelligence and natural language processing technology has an understanding of places that is more natural to the way we speak about them," Nokia said in an emailed statement. "Unlike traditional search engines, which index keywords, Discovery analyzes the context around the questions people are asking, looking for meaning and intent by creating a natural dialogue with them."
Adding brains to HERE services
Right now, you can ask the Desti app for locations of great wineries in Napa Valley, for example, and the app will suggest locations, provide nearby locations, and supply information about each. The app is currently available only for iOS.
However, Nokia said that it would begin pushing the Desti technology into its general HERE services, which it supplies to other platforms. Microsoft has a five-year license to use the HERE services after its Nokia acquisition, and Amazon also has taken a license to use HERE in its mobile devices. (Amazon's latest Kindle Fire HDX actually uses no native map apps of any kind, but geolocation and mapping will undoubtedly be part of a future Amazon smartphone, if it creates one.)
Nokia also supplies its HERE maps technology to 10 million cars equipped with satellite navigation. Nokia doesn't supply a HERE app to either the Android or iOS platform, although the company has written SDKs for both platforms, allowing third-party developers to build them in.
Statistically, users are most likely searching for locations and hotels via Google, using some sort of search query. But Microsoft has arguably jumped to the top of the heap in terms of travel recommendations: Windows Phone users have not one, but two sources of information for making those decisions. This week, Microsoft announced that it would begin integrating advice from TripAdvisor and Yelp into local searches on Bing Maps.
It's unclear how long Nokia will take to integrate the Desti technology and push it out to platforms like Windows Phone, and it's equally unclear how Microsoft will treat Nokia's HERE services, especially with regard to its own Bing technology. So far, it appears that Microsoft is pursuing a hybrid approach. Ask Windows Phone's Cortana digital assistant how long it will take to get to Washington D.C., for example, and the digital map it generates credits both Microsoft and Nokia.
Adding intelligence to maps may seem like a niche application--and on Microsoft and Amazon's they're currently niche platforms, to boot. But "niche" and "boutique" have nearly identical meanings, if the connotations are directly opposite one another. A reputation as the "best" mapping app could lift Nokia, Microsoft and Amazon's fortunes.