Skobbler: the Berlin startup helping Barnes & Noble beat Amazon’s Kindle Fire

OpenStreetMap via Skobbler
OpenStreetMap via Skobbler

Skobbler is the tech company behind this week’s headline “Barnes & Noble tablets get maps before Kindle Fire”. That deal, it turns out, is just one part of ambitious plans for working with what it says can become the world’s best digital map.

OpenStreetMap via Skobbler

It’s not entirely fair to call Skobbler, a spin-off from GPS manufacturer Navigon, a Berlin startup. For a start, the team is split between a small administrative office in Berlin (just 10 people) and a booming tech branch in Cluj-Napoca, Romania (65 people and counting).

The company also has more than a few years under its belt. Peter Scheufen (Navigon’s founder, now Skobbler’s CEO), Marcus Thielking, Philipp Kandal and Oliver Kühn broke away from Navigon to start Skobbler in 2008, mainly to focus more on mobile services.

Marcus Thielking“At that time, navigation services for mobile devices still seemed a bit far out,” Thielking (right) explained, speaking over Skype yesterday. “It sounds odd now but in 2008, no-one really anticipated the iPhone to be that big… It was great, it was just perfect timing because, as we all know, in 2009 things just exploded.”

Skobbler broke even for the first time late last year. Financial backers so far include the founders themselves and a private, Switzerland-based “family office” investment group, who prefer to remain unnamed.

OpenStreetMap – “Wikipedia for maps” takes on Google

Skobbler is best known in Germany for its GPS Navigation 2 app, which Thielking says could be the most successful German app on the German app store, ever. “It’s been number one in 11 countries, sold more than 2.5 million worldwide…”

Going forward, Skobbler will be concentrating on making it easy for third-parties to work with OpenStreetMap, one of only a handful of digital map suppliers in competition with Google Maps worldwide. The others include Tom Tom‘s Tele Atlas and Nokia’s Navteq. Apple is now also in the ring, after ditching Google Maps in favour of its own service.

He’s cautious about pitting Skobbler directly against Google. “We know our place there,” he says. “But we think the OpenStreetMap has a few inherent systematic advantages that will always remain, that the others, including Google, won’t be able to emulate.”

OpenStreetMap is a crowd-sourced map in the style of Wikipedia. The service is still patchy in some non-urban areas (in rural New Zealand, for example) but Thielking says worldwide growth rates are “just tremendous”. OpenStreetMap also has an edge when it comes to including pathways, parks and trails as well as streets, he says.

What the Barnes & Noble deal means for Skobbler

Skobbler didn’t start the OpenStreetMap project – but it wants to stay at the forefront of providing application programming interfaces (APIs) to work with it, through its GeOS operating system, which will become publicly available in Q1 of 2013.

ForeverMap 2, already available for iOS and Android and now built into Barnes & Noble’s Nook tablet (which uses an Android “kernel”), is an example of GeOS in action. Nook users can either access ForeverMap 2 for free or pay $4.99 for a premium version with unlimited downloads for use offline.

So what does the deal mean for Skobbler? The team (below) is winning success in Europe but is yet to really crack the US. With that in mind, especially for a company that relies on a crowd-sourced map, extra visibility can only be a good thing.

Skobbler team

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