Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

Can Anyone Stay on Top of the Online Mapping Hill?

July 19th, 2015 by admin

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.


Dr. Mike

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Posted in Apple, Google, google map updates, Google maps, HERE Maps, map compilation, map updating, Mapping, MapQuest, Microsoft, MindCommerce, OSM

5 Responses

  1. Jim LeClair

    Good read as usual, Dr. Mike,
    It always amazed me how something that’s been around so long, mapping, could get so messed up. As we compare address level locations between the state E911 GIS maps to Google, Bing, Here, et al, we wonder why aren’t they in the same location? Precise GPS locations have been around since 2000 and still the primary basemaps still don’t even agree with online E911 data. Perhaps Uber and the ex-Google mappers will find a “better way”, hope so! Regards, Jim

    Hi, Jim:

    Thanks for your comment.

    Addresses are one of the most problematic of spatial data. A few years ago I was part of a team that worked with the Geography Division of the Bureau of the Census on their GIS initiatives and was the main author of several documents on addresses and addressing as it applies to the decennial census. After two-years of working with the complexity of address and addressing systems – my head hurt (and it still does when I contemplate the problem). This week Dave Cowen, an old friend who also worked on the Census Project, sent me an email on the National Address Database Summit Final Report. Once again that headache is returning.

    However, addresses and Uber is an interesting topic. For example, Uber might be interested in location addresses, rather than postal addresses. Uber does not care that you live on the 10th floor of an apartment building, they just want to know how to locate you and move a car to that location. Similarly, rural route postal addresses do not indicate any specific location, although they may be associated with a group of mailboxes on the side of a road (and distant from the actual residence). E911 data might be the solution for these types of problems, but its availability (and possibly accuracy) may not provide the panacea needed.

    Thanks again.

    Dr. Mike

  2. Pat McDevitt

    Hi Dr Mike,

    Reflecting on this line, ‘While some of the basic map “facts’ may remain unchanged for decades, other map features change with amazing rapidity’. Wouldn’t that argue there’s a profitable opportunity for a company to focus solely on being in the ‘Change Detection and Editing’ business? Get your base map from OSM, TomTom, HERE or Google – and we’ll send you daily/weekly updates, depending on severity (impact to navigation). Essentially you’d become an after-market data provider, the cartographic equivalent of ‘Otter’ for mobile phone cases. Do some of the major players even have a choice? Further, I suspect Brian McClendon’s exposure to Google’s Waze would suggest every Uber driver is contributing to map building (both actively and passively) – and perhaps adding Uber-specific data such as street safety, accessibility and parking. The network graph of Uber’s most frequent pickup/dropoff locations would be fascinating.

    Pat McDevitt

    Hi, Pat:

    Good to hear from you and I am pleased that you still think about map stuff!

    I agree with your comments and think that Uber will use its workforce to supplement its compilation activities. As noted elsewhere – the size of the challenge, after you subtract the crowdsourcing, is still an enormous one – with a very large price tag. In my career, I have found that companies building map databases have constantly underestimated the cost of the endeavor. One reason is the the completion target continues to move as new features are added to the data. Eventually someone asks, “Just how much is all this costing?” Guess what happens next?

    Your concept of an update services is one way to cut costs, but one fraught with difficulties.

    Hope all is well,

    Dr. Mike

  3. GIS_Wanab

    So very interesting, thanks for circulating your insight.!!

    Thanks for reading.

    Dr. Mike

  4. Matt McG

    Thanks for the industry watch update and insights.

    On the map grids piece, please, I’m hoping it is
    not an argument for the National Grid.

    Keep up the good work.

    Hi, Matt:

    Good to hear from you.

    No, the National Grid is not something of interest – to me.


    Dr. Mike

  5. Scott Goldman

    What may bear some additional thought is the physical assets that each of the companies mentioned in your post bring to the ever-growing mapping challenge. Neither Google nor Apple has cars cruising neighborhoods all day and night at no charge to the company. Uber does. They already issue a smartphone and app to each of their drivers so how much more effort would it take to mount a small camera on the dash or perhaps a dome camera in the roof to collect data as they drive around?

    With the funding that Uber has collected and their desire to enter the delivery and logistics business having their own version of street maps may be a prudent investment. Already they are offering a “pickup spot” indicator in their app that will reduce the time-to-arrival of their drivers by directing passengers to a place within a minute or two walk that would shave the pickup time by several minutes. It seems logical that a similar “drop spot” for deliveries or other functions would be equally useful and an Uber-centric mapping process (more pumps, driveways, building entrances, etc., featured) would make sense.

    It is, in a sense, selective crowd sourcing of data. The crowd, of course, is Uber drivers, who Uber may decide to pay a small fee to drive around and direct them via their existing software to places that need mapping. This would be far less expensive than other companies getting into the car/camera/cruising mode and give them a distinct advantage for the future.

    Who knows… maybe one day Google and Apple will contract their mapping services to Uber.

    Hi, Scott:

    Good to hear from you. Thanks for the comment.

    I agree that Uber could compile some street data using their drivers, but there are limitations to “passive” crowdsourcing in respect to spatial information that GPS tracks do not provide. Telemetry to collect “roadside furniture” such as the information contained on various official traffic and street signs, as well as unofficial signs identifying features such as stores, is difficult to collect without advanced technology. However, a larger problem may be related to the density of drivers and routes in cases where the presence of drivers does not necessarily correlate with population densities across an urban area.

    Comprehensive map coverage is required to support some business models, but not all. If Uber wants to focus on providing rides and ride sharing, then it needs to contemplate what map coverage would meet those needs. If Uber wants to be in the package delivery business, then it might need an expanded map coverage. The question of the extent of map coverage that needs to be built should depend on the markets being met by the business model. However, if you are unwilling to constrain your business model in terms of markets and spatial reach, then you have no alternative but to build a global database.

    I doubt that many companies understand the cost of a global, street level database and the enduring costs of maintaining its accuracy. While crowdsourcing is a key to building a modern spatial database, it is only one of many investments of money, labor, time, innovation and discipline that are required for success.

    Oh well, I’d better stop before this response become a blog of its own.

    Thanks again for your comment.

    Dr. Mike