Nokia (NYSE:NOK) is considering selling its HERE Maps.
The Finnish company's navigation technology underpins the mapping services for both Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone and Amazon.com's Fire Phone, and powers the overwhelming majority of in-car GPS solutions sold in North America and Europe.
As the only true competitor to Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Maps and Apple Maps in the west, Nokia's HERE business could be useful to a wide variety of technology companies.
Nokia's navigation assets
Nokia's HERE business grew out of its 2007 purchase of Navteq. Nokia paid $8.1 billion for Navteq's fast-growing business back then, believing that navigation services would prove crucial to competing in the smartphone industry.
The logic was sound, but the execution was off. After its handset market share plunged and its business tanked, Nokia sold its handset business to Microsoft -- but retained ownership of HERE, instead signing a long-term licensing agreement with Microsoft.
Nokia has been shifting its business toward telecommunications equipment. Just before announcing the deal with Microsoft, it bought Siemens' stake in its telecom arm, Nokia Siemens Networks. More recently, Nokia announced a deal to acquire telecom equipment giant Alcatel-Lucent. As a different company with an entirely different focus, owning a navigation arm may not make much sense.
The list of acquirers is long and distinguished
Nokia has not said definitively that it will sell the business, but is reviewing its options. It's likely that it would have many potential suitors.
Both Microsoft and Amazon seem like obvious contenders, as maps remain an integral service to any mobile platform. Google Maps is the industry standard, and though the search giant offers it to Apple's customers, it is not available for either Amazon or Microsoft's mobile devices.
In the long-run, mapping services could prove to be even more important, as the growing number of wearable devices and autonomous cars will likely require a heavy degree of location services. In Nokia's last annual report, it specifically cited autonomous cars as a growth area for HERE maps, while a growing number of smartwatches and fitness bands include built-in GPS functionality.
Nokia has also signed partnership agreements with other mobile players, including Samsung and Baidu. Samsung's mobile phones were the first Android devices to get access to Nokia's HERE Maps app last October, ahead of the general Android launch in December. Baidu has its own mapping service in China, but uses Nokia's technology outside the Middle Kingdom.
Other companies as diverse as Uber and Facebook could be interested. In February, Bloomberg reported that Google was building a competitor to Uber. Uber, in turn, is working on its own self-driving cars to compete with Google's moonshot program, according to TechCrunch. The ride hailing behemoth currently depends on Google Maps to power its service. If the companies are about to become competitors, Uber may need its own mapping technology.
Facebook was widely reported to be interested in acquiring Waze ahead of Google's acquisition. Facebook may have been interested in Waze more for its social element than its mapping technology, but if it still wants a mapping service, it could be in the market for HERE.
How much could HERE fetch in a sale?
The Waze deal might provide some insight into what HERE would fetch in a potential sale. Nokia's HERE division isn't profitable, and any company acquiring it would likely do so for long-term strategic reasons rather than near-term earnings accretion.
Google spent almost $1 billion on Waze back in 2013. But HERE has far more data than Waze -- traffic data for 44 countries, mapping data for 190 -- and much greater technology. In October, Nokia valued its HERE business at around 2 billion euros -- about $2.15 billion U.S. dollars. A bidding war, however, could drive its value much higher.
A great deal could propel Nokia's shares, but they still may not be worth the risk. The proposed Alcatel-Lucent acquisition has proven to be controversial, causing a drag on Nokia's stock.
An acquisition of HERE -- if it occurs -- will likely say more about the acquirer than Nokia itself, and could portend a larger strategic shift in the mobile industry.