How Apple, Microsoft & Wikipedia Fight Google's "Best-Loved Service"
In his update from the CEO yesterday, Google's Larry Page calls Google Maps "one of our best-loved services." But all the big Google Maps news lately is about major customers quitting. Just as Page was publishing his letter, Wikipedia announced it would be the latest big service to drop Google Maps for OpenStreetMap.
The Evolution of Google Maps
There's a growing disconnect between users and service providers over this. Google Maps provides the navigation for the vast majority of users. Around 71% of people who view maps online use Google. It keeps adding killer features like "typical traffic" that make it by far the handiest map app for consumers.
It's free, but it's monetized with little sponsored links, and it ties into Google's quest to lock up the business of location search. But the big business move for Google Maps was to start charging for API access after turning the service into a burgeoning platform. That's where the trouble started.
Big Companies Starting to Bail
Because Google Maps was so ubiquitous, users had a fairly consistent experience, even while using other third-party applications built on top of it. But due to the growing business differences between Google and its high-profile developers, that's starting to crack. Foursquare started to bail in February, and now Wikipedia's mobile apps are going to OpenStreetMap as well.
Apple is another significant case. iOS still uses Google Maps as its out-of-the-box provider. But Apple recently launched iPhoto for iOS, an application it's using to push forward into uncharted waters of user experience. That app is the first piece of Apple software to ditch Google, and don't expect it to be the last.
Apple has all kinds of reasons to push Google off its home screens, and it has been buying up its own mapping companies for years. Whether or not its eventual solution uses open-source map data, you can bet Apple is building its own experience.
But for now, iPhoto uses OpenStreetMap, just like Foursquare and Wikipedia have begun to do. Providers like MapBox Streets offer lovely and distinctive skins for OpenStreetMap data, so it's immediately apparent in these apps that you're not in Google Maps anymore, Toto.
Open & Closed
Though Google's decision to charge for Maps API access has forced some businesses to change course, it's actually better for the ecosystem to require bootstrapping developers to come up with sustainable business models. But for the really big players, the equation is different. Google Maps is a successful platform, and the likes of Apple, Foursquare and Wikipedia have competing interests.
And it's no secret that Microsoft is a huge patron of the OpenStreetMap Foundation. Bing is Google's most direct, across-the-board competitor. Instead of trying to build an in-house, proprietary competitor to Google Maps, which would be a tall order, Microsoft has decided to help fund and develop the open-source alternative. It's a weird future no one ten years ago could have predicted.
If enough location-based services start intermingling with OpenStreetMap, there will be a significant divide between those and the ones built on Google's proprietary service - and Microsoft and Bing will be on the open side. But Apple will be the most interesting company to watch here. Its ultimate decision about open versus proprietary map data will have big ripple effects for app developers.
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