DEBORAH AMOS, host:
If you use MapQuest or Yahoo! Maps or a GPS navigation system, you know about digital mapping. All those maps come from just two map-making companies and now bigger companies are offering billions of dollars to buy them.
NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES: Creating a digital guide to the world's highways and street addresses may be the cutting edge of technology, but it's also just long hours on the road.
Mr. JEREMY ONYSKO (Mobile Mapping Intern, Tele Atlas): We just crossed over into Massachusetts. We're on 3 South currently.
CHARLES: Jeremy Onysko's orange van has four digital cameras mounted on the roof. They're snapping pictures every 30 feet, recording road signs, lane markings - anything a driver might need to know.
Mr. ONYSKO: All this different kinds of signage that most people probably just look right beyond: on ramp, off ramp, different lane changes. And this is all something that you may want to know about as you kind of drive up here.
CHARLES: Painted on the side of this van is the silhouette of a child riding on a flying goose. It's the logo of Tele Atlas, a company based in Belgium, one of the two companies assembling a digital map covering most of the world. The other is NAVTEQ, based in Chicago.
This map-making duopoly, as some call it, started to unravel last summer. The Dutch company TomTom, which makes GPS navigation devices, offered to buy Tele Atlas for more then $2 billion. And last week, the world's biggest cell phone maker, the Finnish company Nokia, announced it was ready to pay $8 billion for NAVTEQ.
Mr. DAVID NIEDERMAN (Pacific Crest Securities): I was very surprised by it.
CHARLES: David Niederman is a senior research analyst with Pacific Crest Securities in Portland. He thought an offer for NAVTEQ might come from a company that uses maps right now, like a GPS device maker or an Internet player like Google or Yahoo. Nokia, though, represents a huge potential market down the road - hundreds of millions of cell phone users.
Mr. NIEDERMAN: So if you're lost, your cell phone can tell you theoretically where you are and how to get where you want to go.
CHARLES: It could also tell you where your cell phone-carrying friends are or lots of other things about what's nearby.
Since the Nokia announcement, officials in the map-making industry have been speculating about the shape of their future world if both these deals go through. Many wonder whether Nokia and TomTom might restrict access to these maps - denying them to competitors. Nokia says it won't do this. And Niederman agrees it's not likely. But he says Nokia probably will push for a map that's most useful for its customers all around the world.
Mr. NIEDERMAN: Nokia may direct NAVTEQ to invest more heavily in emerging markets such as Latin America or India, where there's much more likelihood of consumers using digital maps on their mobile handsets as opposed to in their cars.
CHARLES: Others wonder whether Nokia will ever make much money on cell phone maps. There are numerous obstacles - some are technical. Niederman says a phone that does all the company envisions may be really expensive.
Mr. NIEDERMAN: If you're Nokia, you really need robust GPS and robust processing power, so it's a very powerful mini computer that you're going to need disguised as a cell phone.
CHARLES: There's also a business challenge. Companies that operate the cell phone networks, like Verizon and Cingular, are offering mapping services too. And they may not want their customers using Nokia phones that do the same thing perhaps more cheaply. Those cellular carriers that want to provide maps, though, will have to buy them - perhaps from Nokia.
Dan Charles, NPR News.