The world’s largest operator in terms of revenue, Vodafone, made a play for the navigation and location-based services (LBS) space on Tuesday, with a SEK239m (EUR) offer for Wayfinder Systems.

The Swedish mapping and navigation firm offers a variety of GPS solutions, which are set to be all the rage as mobile broadband takes off and web applications become location-enabled.

Wayfinder’s board of directors said Tuesday that it has unanimously recommended shareholders to accept the offer.

With new rivalry in the mobile service space coming from the likes of Google, Android and Apple, operators are feeling under pressure to defend against the increasing amounts of web and location-enabled applications they have no control over. There is still a lot of hype around mobile social networking, which is a natural suitor for location platforms, and many industry players predict a strong revenue stream from localised advertising models.

Saying that, a recent poll of readers suggests that many believe mobile social networking is overvalued.

Nokia’s $8.1bn acquisition of Navteq earlier this year also demonstrated how much faith the world’s biggest handset vendor has in the space.

Jon Risfelt, chairman of the board of directors of Wayfinder, said: “A stronger Wayfinder enters into 2009 after a challenging 2008 having secured several important deals on GPS handsets and streamlined its operations. After evaluating the Offer, the Board of Directors considers the transaction to be favourable for both shareholders and employees of Wayfinder. The Board of Directors has obtained a Fairness Opinion from Arma Partners which confirms that the consideration is fair, from a financial point of view. The Board of Directors therefore unanimously recommends all shareholders to accept the Offer.”

IDC analyst Jonathan Arber, said the move is somewhat surprising given the current economic climate, but he believes there is still considerable growth in the mobile navigation space, and many of the most attractive acquisition targets are rapidly being snapped up.

“This is the first time we have seen a mobile operator attempt to acquire a navigation company, and it illustrates just how seriously the operators are taking the navigation opportunity,” Arber said.