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Mumbai: When Genesys International Corp. Ltd launched its mapping Internet service Wonobo a few months ago, their purpose was clear.

“Indians have not grown up with maps," explains Sajid Malik, one of the company’s founders. “Indian cities don’t have structured addresses. They are fairly complex urban ecosystems. We are a landmark-based society. Our cities are not organized because they are growing so rapidly."

Wonobo, which will soon be available on mobile devices, captures images of streets and prominent locations and puts them together to create a 360 degree panoramic view of the location.

It’s meant to provide solutions to those who are unable to find their way through cities where a new flyover can come in place of a bunch of old shops, throwing an old visitor completely off track. “We will help people visualize virtually," says Malik.

With about a thousand people having worked on the project, Wonobo has included about 10 million points of interest in 54 cities in India, which is 70% of India’s urban economy, Malik says.

Wonobo is just another entrant in the rapidly growing world of urban navigation tools made necessary by the constant changes our cities go through. A larger number of people are now using private transport, which necessitates the use of maps. As the local mom-and-pop shops make way for fast-food chains and the like, as casual social interactions reduce in numbers, the old Indian habit of asking for directions at the next street corner is giving way to their dependence on gadgets.

The biggest player in this sector, Google Maps, for instance, is assessing the need to make the instructions available in regional languages, says Suren Ruhela, director for Google Maps content operations and product manager for India Maps. Google already has location-based services—the automatic voice responder gives directions like “take left at the Domino’s" or go straight ahead of the “Shanti-Durga Temple on your left", etc.

Others like Nokia, one of the largest location-based services provider with Here maps, cover over 4,000 cities in India and have over seven million points of interest, according to a Press Trust of India news report in October 2012. Nokia also provides mapping solution to auto companies like Volkswagen India Pvt. Ltd, Mercedes-Benz Research and Development India Pvt. Ltd, Tata Motors Ltd and Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd.

Likewise, MapmyIndia, a maps and location-based service, claims to be India’s largest selling in-car GPS navigation device. It sells through over 2,200 outlets in 50 cities and online.

The company has got investor funding from a handful of venture capitals and private equities companies including Qualcomm Ventures and Sherpalo Ventures. It covers 10.33 million places and 1.9 million road kilometres across 600,000 villages and 4,787 cities at street-level. It also claims to provide maps for 50 cities with house-level details, 46 cities with 3D city models and driving directions to 30,000 tourist locations.

India may be slower to adopt to location-based services compared with markets like the US and China, where nearly 50% of smartphone users use these against just 8% in India, according to a report by market researcher Nielsen, but that’s changing swiftly.

One such user is Darshan Rathod, a Pune-based consultant with Acumen Financial Consultancy. On frequent trips to Mumbai, Rathod needs his Google Maps. “I am bad at remembering roads, particularly outside Pune. If I get to Mumbai and I have to go to a meeting, it’s useful to find the distance and get a sense. It helps me to plan."

Rathod has updated his office location on Google Maps when they shifted location, one of the 6,000 third-party users who contribute to Google Maps.

But these maps are not flawless. Rathod says his old office used to show up in a different place, about half-a-kilometre away from its actual location. In Mumbai, we tried finding the fairly well-known Phoenix Mills in Lower Parel, but the map directions led us through the wrong way up a one-way road. In other places like Goa, for instance, twice we were led to a dead end and to an area without motorable roads.

One of the problems with Google Maps is network and connectivity, says Niraj Kedia, a mergers and acquisitions consultant. He has since switched to Nokia, because of better connectivity and accuracy of the Windows phone. “This beats Google hands down," Kedia says. “I have used this everywhere, from Europe to southern India, Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur, Simla, Delhi and the northeast."

People like Kedia and Rathod are still a small section of the population using maps. Of the 30 million odd smartphone users, 57% have a data plan, according to the Nielsen report. Text messaging is the most popular feature in India, with close to three-fourths of the mobile phone users using text messaging. Social media is next, but a distant second, used by nearly a quarter of all smartphone users, said the study.

Location-based services have to be made more compelling for them to take off in India, says Raghav Anand, segment leader, new media, at EY, a consulting firm earlier known as Ernst and Young. There are not many relevant services yet available that use location-based services, he says.

“Moreover, in India 3G has not been able to offer consistent service or coverage and hence has yet to pick up," says Anand, who is waiting to see if the fourth generation mobile communication technology standard is handled better by telecom providers.

Airtel has already started rolling out 4G services and Reliance is also readying for its 4G launch. “In the next two years, 4G should be available in top metros and top 10 cities," says Anand.

To be sure, the number of people accessing the Internet from their mobile phones is higher than those accessing the net from their personal computers. If 4G is able to provide good capacity and coverage, then it will become the default access to the Internet, says Anand.

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