Thoughts on HERE

When was the last time you bought a CD? Come to think of it, when was the last time you plugged an iPod into your computer and synced music from iTunes?

That’s what I thought.

The fact that HERE may be for sale (publicly, which is somewhat unusual in the world of acquisitions) and that it languishes is really no surprise. (“Reviewing strategic options” is a vaguebooking/subtweeting way of saying “Make us an offer.”) HERE is the CD of navigation. Many years ago, I supported a customer that did a lot of multi-modal transportation analysis. In the pre-OSM world, you had TIGER and a handful of commercial data providers. (Remember ETAK?) This was around the time that in-vehicle navigation was becoming commonplace in personal vehicles. The data in those systems, NavTech, was highly sought after but unavailable in standard GIS formats at the time. After a while, NavTech entered the GIS data realm, and its US product became the flagship commercial data set in the HSIP Gold database; a status it holds to this day. In some government circles, users clamored to get NavTech/Navteq/HERE data for their analysis. The rest of the world, however, has moved on.

In 2010, we bought a new van that had a navigation system. Under the driver’s seat is a DVD drive containing the Navteq data used by the system. In 2011, I bought a new car that had no such system. I haven’t missed it as I simply use Google Maps navigation on my phone. In the van, I’ve never updated the data. As a result, it doesn’t know about such new regional features as the express/local lane split for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the 495 Express Lanes in Virginia, or National Harbor in Maryland. My phone (and the iPhones of my friends and family), however, does know about them. After about a year, they all also know about the streets and addresses of our newly constructed neighborhood. The nav system in the van, however, remains stuck in the geography of 2009.

Therein lies the problem for HERE. The market that built its brand has moved past the need for static, on-board systems. Data access is ubiquitous enough that phone-based apps can connect back to get the latest data in near real time. Uber would be a sexy suitor but, as this tweet demonstrates, they don’t really need HERE or its early 2000s data collection methods.

MapBox has also described how it is intrinsically updating and improving its maps as they get used. This is the natural evolution of data collection in the era of data connection. It is getting increasingly easier and decreasingly costly to build a high quality data set as people move around with their phones. I am not even stopping to consider the home-grown data products of Google and Apple nor the crowd-sourced data of OSM. These add up to a lot of nails in the coffin of a product like HERE. That leaves certain government sectors with anything resembling a compelling use case for HERE. By the time MapBox is done, OSM will fill those needs nicely.

The sun is most likely setting on HERE and its business model, but it will probably live on as an ideal case study of the speed with which geospatial technology, and information technology in general, has evolved over the past decade and a half.