Can Anyone Stay on Top of the Online Mapping Hill?
Recently a colleague contacted me to ask my thoughts about a report indicating that Microsoft was selling some map-related assets to Uber. He noted his disappointment, as he had hoped that Microsoft would reinvigorate its mapping activities and, once again, become a notable player in the mapping market. The brief conversation led me to contemplate the world of online maps both past and future.
Microsoft has had a long and storied role in desktop mapping software. For a while they were the leading provider of consumer oriented mapping software, but that role relied on the company’s success in controlling the physical distribution channels for its products. In the age of packaged mapping software aimed at the desktop computer Microsoft was able to influence the popularity of its products by controlling the distribution channels that determined the availability of products for purchase.
Microsoft could afford to buy as much shelf space and as many end caps or stand-alone displays as it desired. Since physical space in stores was limited, Microsoft’s presence could restrict the competitive products that were available. In other cases when competing products seemed to offer more and better functionality, Microsoft often reduced the price of its software to “free,” or at a cost level that was not sustainable for most competitive products. Due to the ability to leverage its mapping brand across distribution channels and measure its mapping products profitability across all software product lines, Microsoft’s mapping software became a dominant force in the industry. This is not to say that Microsoft’s mapping software was uncompetitive, as it was often of better quality than the products of many other players in the mapping industry.
MapQuest’s launch of a free, online mapping product quickly changed the distribution paradigm. In what should have been a case study for the Innovator’s Dilemma, Barry Glick and Company offered Internet-based routing capability between addresses across the United States, even though no one, at the time, ever asked for one. While not quite as fully functional as some of the desktop mapping/routing software, it was often more up-to-date and offered none of the cock-ups that frequently accompanied the use of CD-ROM software, and the related idiosyncrasies of the operating systems of the time.
Microsoft’s response to the development of online mapping systems was quite timid, and, perhaps, more confused than anything else. Unfortunately MapQuest was the people’s choice, although Microsoft online map product was competitive. The more important point is that it was at this point that Microsoft’s inability to influence online distribution doomed its mapping efforts, as the company now would have to depend on functionality and innovation in its effort to lead the market without any of the revenue that accrued to the company from their desktop mapping. But like MapQuest and Yahoo, Microsoft had no idea how to make money from online mapping.
Google’s development of mapping as an infrastructure play designed to enhance its advertising business marked a turning point in the sophistication of online mapping functionality. Google had a financial reason to spend a great deal of money promoting innovative mapping and routing features. It was able to out-spend and out-innovate Microsoft and all other players in the mapping universe as a result. In turn, the threat of the position achieved by Google as a partial result of the global success of its mapping programs led Apple to develop its own capabilities in mapping. Apple realized that users of the iPhone expected quality mapping and the company was not interested in its customers being users of Google Maps. Apple’s spend on mapping has been to protect its brand.
In today’s online world of mapping Google and Apple, two companies with strategic incentives requiring mapping, rule the roost. Will this leadership continue?
I have previously noted in this blog my interest in how long Google might be able to sustain its “spend” on mapping software. I think we now have an answer. It is my impression that the heady days of map development at Google are over and that its map products will be maintained at or near their existing levels, but with little innovation, other than in regards to autonomous navigation systems, as we proceed into the future. Google, unfortunately, is approaching middle-age and is developing the concerns that accompany fiscal responsibility. Over the last year or so, Google Maps has experienced senior management departures and market abandonment (GIS). Now the company has new financial leadership and this will result in spending limitations leading to a lack of innovation that will certainly limit Google’s future in the world of mapping.
Although it is early in game for Apple, I doubt they will fare much better. In its favor, the company has been more circumspect about spending. It appears to have out-thought Google’s mapping innovations and found of way to reach near-parity without spending as much as Google. However, in the long run, Apple’s market is limited to its own customer base, and quality mapping will be too expensive to support without some fundamental change in Apple’s business model. I suspect that eventually Apple will find that it, too, cannot afford to support its mapping programs at the desired level of accuracy and functionality.
The problem for all companies involved in mapping is that supporting quality in spatial data is an effort that historically has nickle-and-dimed profitability. While some of the basic map “facts’ may remain unchanged for decades, other map features change with amazing rapidity. It is an unfortunate rule of mapping that you cannot just compile, then build your spatial database and stop. In order to be competitive companies need to update their map data in a cyclical and spatially comprehensive manner. In addition, technology is constantly changing and the spatial support systems that spin these databases must be upgraded, updated and rethought every two to three years. Most organizations simply cannot afford maintain these types of efforts on a worldwide basis.
Few CFO’s want to hear the answer to this question, “When will you be finished with the mapping database?” The answer, of course, is “Never!” The answer to “Can you spend less?” is “Of course, but the data won’t be as good and the functionality will suffer.” (While “active” crowdsourcing may be considered an alternative here, I think that it is, for several reasons, not a sustainable choice for major commercial map providers. However, crowdsourcing (either active or passive) is not the topic of today’s blog.)
That brings us to Uber. Obviously Uber is interested in mapping. It has hired key players from Google, made an asset-deal with Microsoft and submitted a bid for HERE. However, the HERE bid appears dead, which leads me to presume that new Uber employee Brian McClendon (ex-Google, once a mapping exec for the company) may be planning on recreating the Google Map Machine at Uber. I do not doubt that Uber could spend some of its money to build a great street-level spatial database for the world. Conversely, I hope someone besides me begins asking, “How many of these worldwide street-level databases are we going to build? Isn’t there a better way?” Maybe!
Although it may not make your day, next time I am going to write about map grids, an ever popular topic for dreamers. It might be fun – and, hopefully, informative.