Nokia has been going navi-crazy lately. Last week, the Finnish conglomerate bought location-based social networking company Plazes for an estimated $30m. This comes as the company is wrapping up the largest acquisition in its history – the $8.1bn purchase of Navteq. We believe this is just the beginning for Nokia and others in the excessively hyped mobile location-based services (LBS) space. The question arising from this acquisition, as well as Vodafone’s $48.7m acquisition of Zyb in May, is what these acquisitions mean for the rest of the market. One implication is already clear: GPS technology has been commodified. (Just ask shareholders of Garmin, who have seen the stock skid to a two-year low.) With this technology popping up on dozens of devices, we expect hardware vendors to be even more active in snapping up LBS startups.
Nokia plans to roll Plazes into its Nokia Maps division, which itself was formed from the acquisition of gate5 in late 2006. It is part of Nokia’s overall strategy to have GPS technology play a large role in expanding beyond just being a mobile hardware company. Nokia claims it will sell upward of 37 million GPS-enabled handsets this year alone. The approaching worldwide release of the GPS iPhone, as well as Research in Motion’s push to include the technology in most of its BlackBerry devices, make it clear why high-profile backers such as KPCB and Sequoia Capital are so excited about LBS applications.
Beyond being a simple technology purchase, however, Plazes and other future deals will likely bring another important component to the apps: users. Despite their hype and position as leaders in the space, services such as Palego’s Whrrl, Loopt and Brightkite have fewer than a million users combined. Compare that to the hundreds of millions of users that ‘traditional’ social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace command, and one wonders what the hype is all about. By pairing up with larger companies, however, the services get instant access to millions of users. It is the technology and expertise that rumored suitors such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google and now the mobile carriers and hardware manufacturers are interested in. With continued consolidation, the fear of being left behind in a potentially important market will drive many to acquire first and ask questions later. Nokia might have just lit the fire in the M&A race to dominate the LBS market.
Seven signs of a consolidating LBS industry
*estimated, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase