In recent years, Google Maps has transformed itself from an also-ran service struggling to catch up with the likes of MapQuest to a market-leading mapping and route planning service that seems to be everywhere. There’s scarcely a Web site or smartphone app with any location-related needs that doesn’t tie in with Google Maps. The reasons were clear: Google Maps offered a clean, simple interface most people could figure out, the data was pretty accurate and getting better all the time, and — perhaps best of all — it was free. Moreover, to encourage third parties to use Google Maps, Google published a bunch of APIs to let sites, services, and apps tie into the data. Not only was Google Maps free — Google was actively helping third parties use it.
Now, however, Google Maps is starting to see some high-profile defections. The first was Foursquare, which revealed last week it was dropping Google Maps from its Web-based offering. This week, Foursquare was joined by Apple, which has abandoned Google Maps in iPhoto for iOS (specifically the new Journals and slideshow features).
Why are high-profile companies defecting from Google Maps? What are the alternatives, and how do they stack up?
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Everyone understands that creating an online digital mapping service isn’t cheap. It’s not like companies can license a few dozen satellite photos of the earth, tap the autotrace function in a graphics program, and presto! have comprehensive world maps. As it has been throughout all of history, map-making remains a painstakingly detailed, human-intensive process. To be sure, the advent of high-resolution satellite imagery, detailed public records, and increasingly accurate data from GPS and other systems helps tremendously, but mapmaking still comes down to people figuring out how to accurately represent significant features, then associating important information with them.
With streets, including names, addresses, numbers of lanes, and directions of travel — specialized maps will include things like bike lanes, pedestrian access, speed limits, and traffic stops. Once you have streets, it gets very tempting to layer additional information over them: bus routes and mass transit, tolls, traffic cameras, and (of course) real-time traffic data, if available. And that’s just in cities: Out in the boonies it can be vitally important to know whether a road is public or private, paved or unsurfaced, or even prone to washouts or landslides. When you add buildings, businesses, trains, ferries, airports, forests, boundaries (cities, counties, states, and nations), and terrain data to the mix, suddenly digital mapping becomes an incredibly complex, expensive proposition. And it constantly has to be updated, because buildings, roads, throughways, and businesses change continuously.
Companies like TeleNav, Tele Atlas (owned by TomTom), Navteq (owned by Nokia), and Google have invested billions of dollars in generating their digital mapping data. And they’re always innovating ways to present and deliver that data to users via everything from printed maps to Web-based services to handheld GPS devices and smartphones.
The price of free
It’s important to note that of all the major digital map-makers, only Google was offering access to its maps for free. Firms like Navteq and TeleNav recoup their investments by selling their mapping services to third parties — Navteq powers Garmin GPS units and Bing Maps, for example; TeleNav sells its own GPS and powers things like MyTouch Ford in-vehicle systems. Google, however, chose to zig instead of zag: It offered its digital mapping services for free to essentially anybody who wanted them. The idea was to make Google’s online mapping service a de facto standard for digital maps on the Web and in mobile devices. Once Google had established a serious presence in the digital mapping marketplace, it would figure out a way to monetize the service.
(Interestingly, Google Maps did not develop in an ivory tower: Google acquired the initial technology from Where 2 Technologies in 2004 and converted it to a Web-based service. In 2008 Google made a five-year agreement with Tele Atlas for mapping data. Google backed out of the deal in October 2009, immediately before announcing Google Maps Navigation for Android. It wasn’t a coincidence.)
Google first announced plans to begin monetizing Google Maps nearly a year ago, including a requirement that any new services forward display advertising in Google Maps along to their end users, so Google could start generating advertising revenue from the service. The hammer truly dropped in October 2011, when Google finally revealed pricing for Google Maps services. Lightweight usage was still free — subject to terms of service, of course. However, significant load volumes would begin to incur charges: basically, services and applications that generated more 25,000 map loads per day would be charged $40 to $10 for every additional 1,000 map loads. For folks using styled maps — the most intensive and customized option — the initial threshold is 2,500 maps per day.
To be sure, 25,000 map loads per day is a high threshold. Everyday mapping users aren’t going to come anywhere near it, and many businesses and apps that use mapping as an ancillary feature rather than a central component of their service would probably be unaffected. Google estimated that the usage load limits would impact about 0.35 percent of its users. However, if you’re a company like Apple — with over 180 million iPhones and 60 million iPads in the wild, all with Google Maps built in — the fees start to add up. To be sure, Google offers a Maps API Premier option with guaranteed service levels, support, and annual pricing structures: Google doesn’t publish prices for the premier plan, but it’s safe to say it’s not cheap.
At any rate, Google realized it would take companies and services a while to adapt to the pricing shift, so there was a 90-day grace period. Guess when that ran out?
For businesses put off by the new costs of Google Maps, the main alternative seems to be OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap is a UK-based, volunteer-driven non-profit dedicated to creating and offering free geographic data to anyone who wants it. OpenStreetMap (or OSM) boasts more than 400,000 registered volunteers who supply mapping data and updates to the project. It’s an oversimplification, but think of OSM as a loose equivalent to Wikipedia for mapping data: anyone can contribute, and the content is available to anyone. Of course, this also means some of the content may be…questionable. However, OSM’s geospatial data is totally free: its use requires no royalties or fees. The only requirements are that anyone using the data give credit to OSM, and any users who improve OSM’s data are required to share that improved data back to the OSM community for all to benefit.
OpenStreetMap data can differ from Google Maps in many significant ways. First, while it often has great coverage of cities and heavily populated areas, parts further afield can present some challenges. It also lacks niceties like satellite imagery and Google’s Street View. For many map users, that doesn’t present much of a problem, but for those who get around using eye-level landmarks, it could be an issue.
Both Foursquare and Apple are using OpenStreetMap data to power their new map offerings, although, interestingly, both are going to significant efforts to improve its presentation. Foursquare has gone with a company called MapBox to produce appealing maps for its Web-based services. Apple has opted to produce its own maps based on OSM data. Over the last few years, Apple has acquired a handful of mapping companies, including Placebase, Poly9, and C3 Technologies. OSM notes that Apple isn’t (yet) giving credit to OSM for the mapping data: “we look forward to working with Apple to get that on there,” OSM’s Jonathan Bennet wrote in the organization’s blog.
It’s important to note that, for now, neither Foursquare nor Apple have replaced Google Maps whole hog in their offerings. Everything in iOS except for two new features in iPhoto still relies on Google Maps, and Foursquare’s mobile offerings for iOS and Android still tap into Google Maps. Only their Web-based offering uses mapping data for OSM. However, it is telling that both companies felt it was more efficient to use free mapping data and fork out the money to generate their own map displays than it was to continue using Google Maps.
Find your way
The fees to use Google Maps probably aren’t what’s starting to put off companies like Foursquare and Apple — it’s probably the ever-increasing reach of Google’s advertising efforts. Third parties may not be comfortable acting as windows for Google’s advertising platform, and that’s particularly true for firms that compete against Google in one way or another — whether that be offering location-based deals or a leading mobile platform. The upshot is that consumers can expect more and more services to gradually shift away from Google Maps towards less-encumbered alternatives like OpenStreetMap — particularly if their business interests in any way bring them into competition with Google.