When it comes to offering online maps to their users, some companies have been leaving Google Maps and setting out for less familiar territory.
In the seven years since it was introduced, Google’s offering of street maps, satellite photos and street-level views has become the dominant player in the world of online mapping, displacing earlier entrants like AOL’s MapQuest. According to comScore, 71 percent of the 91.7 million people in the United States who looked at maps online in February used Google Maps.
There are signs, however, that Google’s dominance is under assault — and the company’s own moves may have something to do with this.
Many sites incorporate Google Maps into their own pages, whether to pinpoint real estate listings or pothole problems. Google was already charging the biggest users of the service fees that could run into six figures a year. But last October it announced that it would start charging smaller Web sites when their users started generating an average of 25,000 map views a day over a quarter. Many independent Web developers, upon whom Google relies to make its products popular, rebelled at the change.
“If you are a site just looking to put a pizzeria on a map, it’s no big deal, but if you are trying to put a brand around your mapping, it’s a big deal,” said James Fee, chief evangelist at WeoGeo, which provides location data. “Google says it will affect a very small number of users, but I have heard it will touch 30 or 40 percent of people who really depend on maps for their business. It could cost you tens of thousands of dollars a month.”
In late February, Foursquare, the social media location service, said that on its Web site it would move from Google Maps to data from OpenStreetMap, a user-contributed map service that is created and managed much like Wikipedia. In a blog post, Foursquare said Google’s price increases had prompted the change.
Apple’s new version of its iPhoto application for the iPhone and the iPad also uses data from OpenStreetMap, though Apple uses many mapping sources, particularly Google, in its other products. Nestoria, a real estate search engine, also said it was leaving Google for OpenStreetMap because of the prices.
According to comScore, OpenStreetMap itself still has a minuscule amount of Web traffic. Google Maps had 65 million users in February, a 16 percent increase from a year earlier. MapQuest had 35 million, a 13 percent drop. Microsoft’s Bing Maps came in third with nine million users, an 18 percent gain.
Still, having companies like Foursquare involved appears to be improving the quality of OpenStreetMap, as contributors of map data become energized. “We’re getting a lot of attention from this,” said Steve Coast, the founder of OpenStreetMap, who said the organization had 500,000 registered users.
Mr. Coast still heads OpenStreetMap, but about 16 months ago he joined Microsoft, which appears to be backing OpenStreetMap to help it counter Google’s dominance. While he declined to talk about his work at Bing Maps, people involved in the industry say he is building open-source software that would make it easier for developers to use OpenStreetMap. (Foursquare gets its maps through an intermediary called MapBox.) While Google has in the past donated money to OpenStreetMap for conferences and hardware, Microsoft has donated far more valuable map data to the project.
Google appears to be fighting back. On Tuesday it will announce two new sites aimed at encouraging developers of all skill levels to use its maps for location services and mobile applications. One of the sites has easy-to-follow directions, while the other is a gallery of things people have built with Google Maps.
Google declined interviews about its maps. In an e-mail, a company spokesman, Sean Carlson, wrote that the pricing “is intended to encourage responsible use” of the map data, and “secure its long-term future while ensuring that the vast majority of developers are unaffected.” He added that traffic and the number of sites using Google Maps had continued to grow since the pricing was announced.
Google has worries besides price rebellions and open-source alternatives. As more people use the Internet via mobile devices, location services have become critical for many of the Internet’s biggest companies, and all of the major players are pouring more resources into maps.
In January, 52 million people accessed maps on their smartphones, an increase of 67 percent from a year earlier, according to comScore. Google was the dominant player, with a 67 percent share, but the market is still young. Even Foursquare is still using Google in its mobile applications, though a company executive said this could change..
Google has moved beyond basic driving directions to mapping the insides of shopping malls and airports. Microsoft is creating maps that can tell you how tall a building is and whether the store on the ground floor has long lines, based on what people say on social networks.
“We’re getting to a point of location information everywhere,” said Stefan Weitz, a senior director at Microsoft’s Bing search business, which includes maps. “Where we’re going is about getting to better ways of describing the physical world,” with data from users and independent sources, he said. “Maps stay relatively static, and you have this ability to augment every place” with changing data about times and conditions, plus individual preferences, Mr. Weitz said.
Nokia, which last year paid $8.1 billion for a map company called Navteq, is working on map-based phone apps that tell you when to leave the house to catch your train. These could look at schedules, that day’s delays and your favorite walking route, then alert you a few minutes before you should leave. Microsoft has joined with Nokia on mobile apps and recently released tools for software developers to build mapping applications for its Windows 8 operating system.
As Apple’s business increasingly revolves around the iPhone and iPad, however, it has made several map-related acquisitions, including Poly9, which made a small but powerful three-dimensional map of the Earth, and C3, for looking at city streets in 3-D. Another Apple acquisition, Placebase, had products for putting third-party data like restaurant ratings onto maps. Apple has yet to combine these services into a single product that could match many of Google’s capabilities.
Even a 42-year veteran of the commercial mapping business, Environmental Systems Research Institute, is getting into the game. Next month, E.S.R.I., which sells about $1.2 billion a year in map-making software to government agencies, retailers and utilities, will offer subscription-based access to maps submitted by customers. The idea is that outside developers will layer those maps with all kinds of new data for computers and mobile phones.
“There are hundreds of thousands of maps that people will put in there and share,” said Jack Dangermond, the founder and president of E.S.R.I., who admits it is a little odd to suddenly be cutting edge. “I’ve hacked away at this for years,” he says. “The Web is making it come alive. Cartography and geographic thinking are cool.”