Google Maps: Where next for the online mapping revolution?
The arrival of Google Maps in 2004 heralded a new era in mapping and in particular how people and organisations thought about the way mapping could be used on the web. Static, pixellated tiles of maps in raster formats were no longer good enough, people wanted interaction and more control over what their maps displayed and how they related to other important media such as documents, databases and imagery. Organisations had been there before offering interactive mapping but no-one had done it so boldly and so ubiquitously as Google.
It’s possible to be both supportive and critical of Google Maps, sometimes in the same breath. One of the main benefits from Google entering the world of mapping has been the exponential rise in user demand for interactive maps and in the expectations of organisations in how they use maps to communicate and inform online. On the B2B scale small businesses like ourselves have been able to tap into that user demand by offering organisations either a map solution built with the Google Map API or an alternative solution based on open source technologies, implementing comparable features and functions but using alternative map sources such as Ordnance Survey mapping. [more]
You could say that we have a foot in both camps – non-proprietary and proprietary – but that was driven largely by customer demand. We love open source technologies and our own mapping software but we’re not slaves to it. As a small business we have to be pragmatic: it’s what our customers demand when they have a limited budget coupled with high expectations. In certain quarters Google Maps is seen as a rogue; a corporate monopoliser less interested in mapping but more interested in the banner space above the map and the flow of traffic to its other products and services.
And therein lies a problem. The flip-side to the mass appeal of online interactive consumer mapping has been a perception that Google Maps unfairly dominates the market place. This threatened to come to some kind of a head in the UK when in 2010 the Ordnance Survey trailed (and then released in April 2011) its Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA). There was confusion – particularly voiced by Local Authorities – about whether or not organisations could show data derived from an Ordnance Survey (OS) map over a Google Map. Perhaps fresh in some minds was the copyright infringement claim made by OS against the AA for using OS maps as source material in certain AA road atlases. That case was eventually settled out of court to the tune of £20M in 2001 but was this latest spat between OS and Google threatening to grow to a similar level of acrimony?
Despite some public discussion on the issue neither side appears to have come to a common understanding of what it means to put OS-derived data on a Google Map nor do they seem to have been willing to give a clear and definitive answer that draws a line under the issue. Informally and publically each party has claimed that their own interpretation of the “legalese” is correct and a stalemate is now in place which seems to suit both parties.
Interestingly Google’s recently revised Terms of Service may provide some kind of possible closure with the phrasing of the words “When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services..”as using the Google Map API doesn’t require data being “uploaded” or “submit[ted]” to Google. On the other side of the fence the advent of the Ordnance Survey’s OpenData products may have helped to push the issue further down the agenda with OS able to direct Local Authorities and other interested parties to a Plan B with its own range of ‘free to use’ map data rather than into a cul-de-sac with open-ended answers in response to closed questions about Google Maps.
In France it’s been a different story. Earlier this year a French cartographic company successfully sued Google Maps for its “unfair dominance” of the market place, convincing the commercial tribunal that Google’s strategy is to drive out domestic competition. Google says it will appeal but it raises the spectre of cartographic companies in other EC countries also following suit.
Possibly the real winner in the UK and elsewhere in the last couple of years has been Open Street Map (OSM)which is turning heads with the richness of its content and the growing impression that its own business model is sustainable in the long-term. More and more applications and software – predominantly open source – are being developed to work with OSM data and the upswing in moves to cloud computing means that OSM is able to position itself in such a way that people can deliver products and services online with comparatively low start-up costs. Then of course there is Bing Maps from Microsoft – a long-standing commercial operator in mapping and cartography – which is arguably a superior digital cartographic product with a better update cycle in the UK to that of Google.
The majority of multi-platform media – of which mapping is now a commodity with unique leverage – struggle to find a successful business model that delivers content and features users want but which will also generate revenue and even – shock, horror – the ultimate prize: a self-sustainable and non-subsidised profit. The Ordnance Survey has made arguments to this effect for not releasing products like MasterMap as part of its OpenData portfolio. If MasterMap, its mapping crown jewel, is made freely available the OS claims it will need to be subsidised by £30M per annum to cover the shortfall in economic benefits it provides the organisation.
Google Maps is going the other way, changing its business model with the instigation in October 2011 of charging for use of its API once a certain number of map loads have been reached. It’s something that many commentators had been anticipating for years and is indicative of a key trend in organisations offering online software services: start “free”, build up a user base, make those users dependent, then start to charge.
Somewhere along this spectrum of licensing and monetising mapping is a sweet spot that both supplier and consumer will be happy with, but where is it?
Google Maps and its API has undoubtedly shaped the way we now view not only mapping but also technology itself. Mobile phones, for example, go so well with interactive maps. We need never be lost ever again. The interesting conundrum for Google is that with the range of alternative commercial and open source mapping products now available, often providing clearer and less contentious licensing agreements for their use, it means that developers and organisations are no longer dependent upon using Google Maps or its API to provide either a local or a global picture or service online.
Google has been a commercial trailblazer, instigating unprecedented demand for online mapping and acting as a catalyst in creating and shaping a global market for consumer mapping that provides real choices to the buyer both in terms of what map data to use and what technology is best suited to delivering that data. In the UK the monopoly of the OS has been broken if not the dependency for large-scale accurate ‘definitive mapping’.
Whilst Google has not been alone in driving mapping demand over the past decade their shake-up of the market place has made mapping an integral part of the way our understanding of the real and virtual world have been shaped. Google has changed our perceptions of mapping in a way that could only really have emerged alongside the explosion of the Internet. The key for businesses like ours is to harness those perceptions with a successful business model that delivers online products and services people want.