Why are companies defecting from Google Maps?


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?


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.

MyFord Touch 2.0 nav screen

(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

What will the future bring? It’s safe to say that Google is going to continue to push to monetize Google Maps and bank on the substantial investment it has made to develop the service. That’s probably not going to mean higher fees for apps and services to use Google Maps; however, it’s more likely that Google will continue to tweak terms of service so users of Google Maps will increasingly have to accept advertising from Google pushed along with Google Map content. And, of course, that advertising will be location-specific to whatever mapping data is being requested. And you can bet it will be filtered through the increasingly comprehensive dossier of interests, preferences, and demographic information Google accumulates about users through its new all-encompassing privacy policy.

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.


Google may charge up to $40 per Android device for app suite following EU ruling

Google announced that it will be charging Android device manufacturers in Europe a licensing fee to use its apps and services. The announcement is part of an effort to comply with new European Commission regulations.

Strapped after your latest smartphone purchase? Check out our favorite MVNOs

Looking to switch from a major carrier to something a little more affordable? Luckily, there are a ton of great MVNO options to choose from. Check out our guide to the best MVNOs, from Boost Mobile to Google Project Fi.

Google Maps brings its real-time journey-tracking feature to iPhone

It's been available on Android for a while now, and now Google Maps has brought its real-time journey-tracking feature to iOS. It lets you choose who to share a journey with, and tracking ends automatically when you arrive.

Google Maps now shows EV owners the way to the nearest charging station

Google Maps now lets electric-car owners find the nearest charging station with ease. It's also added data on the number and types of ports available, charging speeds, and notes on the business where the station is located.

Apple’s 2020 MacBooks could ditch Intel processors, arrive with ‘ARM Inside’

If you're buying a MacBook in 2020, be on the lookout for a new "ARM Inside" banner. Apple is reportedly working on transitioning away from Intel processors for its MacOS lineup in favor of new custom A-series ARM-based silicon.

The Verizon GizmoWatch puts a quick-communication device on your kid’s wrist

Verizon is taking another shot at building a smartwatch for youngsters. The company announced the Verizon GizmoWatch, which boasts 4G connectivity and helps parents keep track of their children.

Apple’s latest feature ensures MacOS apps are safer than ever

MacOS is mythically known for being more immune to viruses than Windows, but that doesn't mean there isn't room to make it safer. Apple is using an app notarization feature to protect users from downloading malicious apps.

Apple sends out invites for October hardware event, new iPad Pro expected

The new iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and Apple Watch aren't the last devices we'll see from Apple in 2018. There are plenty of rumors about a new iPad coming this year too, and it may share some design similarities with the new phones.

A strap for everyone: The best Apple Watch bands you can buy right now

If you have an Apple Watch, you know how easy it is to take off the strap it came with, so why not buy yourself another one? Here we've gathered the best Apple Watch bands we've seen so far and there's something for everyone.

Need a quick battery boost? Try one of our favorite portable chargers

Battery life still tops the polls when it comes to smartphone concerns. If it’s bugging you, then maybe it’s time to snag yourself a portable charger. Here are our picks of the best portable chargers.

Which new iPhone is the best? iPhone XS vs. iPhone XS Max vs. iPhone XR

Apple has three new iPhone models to choose from this year, making the choice a little harder than usual. What's the difference between the iPhone XS, the iPhone XS Max, and the iPhone XR, and which is best?

Need a do-over? Here's how to factory reset an iPhone, from XS on down

Resetting an iPhone can alleviate all sorts of software woes, and wipe away personal data should you sell your device or give it to someone else. Here's how to factory reset an iPhone from within iOS or iTunes.

Camera shootout! Testing the latest Pixel, iPhone, and Galaxy Note in real life

Which takes the best photos, the Pixel 3 XL, iPhone XS Max, Galaxy Note 9, or Pixel 2 XL? We put the cameras on all these top-notch phones through their paces to see which performs best in the real world, from low light to portrait mode…

Will Apple introduce a new MacBook at its Oct. 30 event? Here's everything we know

Whether it's called the MacBook Air or just the MacBook, Apple is highly rumored to introduce a new, affordable laptop in 2018. We discuss reports about upgrading displays, processors, sign-in features, and more.