Can 1.5 Million Volunteer Mappers Beat Google?

I love Google Maps. I probably use it as much if not more than any other application on my iPhone. I do not believe I am alone. According to numerous sources, maps and directions are one of the most important search parameters on mobile devices (and Google tops the heap). In fact, I think it is safe to say that most hyper-local advertising will end up being tied to maps (when its not tied to location beacons). Independent brick-and-mortar stores may well live or die by the traffic coming to them through mapping applications.

Maps go well beyond finding places. I use Google Maps for turn-by-turn directions. I create maps of places I would like to visit when I travel to other cities and use that to drive my vacations. I also use Google Maps to locate nearby stores in specific categories - if I need to find a good place for a coffee and I am at the corner of 2nd and Howard, then Google Maps is my first stop. (Yelp is a close second). I ride a bike a lot in the city and Google has the best bike-specific directions of any app. I realize that Google achieved this level of granular detail through expensive and time-consuming coverage executed by its fleet of data-gathering cars. by Google Maps was totally logical. This does, however, convert Google Maps into a marketplace. It is a marketplace with enormous potential, possibly the next multi-billion dollar online marketplace for Google. Anyone searching for things through a map will provide critical information to Google’s engines that will allow appropriate and precise matches of services, stores and restaurants to expressed needs.

That said, marketplaces do best when there is competition.This is why I was so excited to hear that Telenav would be using OpenStreetMap to power its popular Scout and skobbler (now also branded Scout) GPS applications on phones. It replaces data from TomTom. Even more important, Telenav launched a Scout for Developers program. This allows developers to build applications that use OpenStreetMap-based GPS navigation into their own products on mobile, as well as for desktop. The most important thing here is that this creates a credible and powerful alternative to Google Maps. For those who don’t know, OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a free map of the world created by a crowd of local chapters. Think of it as Wikipedia for maps (as The Next Web describes it). Unlike Google’s Map Maker tool, OSM is based on open principles and is community driven on a global scale. A number of services use OSM to power their maps. And OSM has a whopping 1.5 million registered editors globally. The active ones regularly contribute updates via their phones and computers. (Telenav underwrites OSM, not surprisingly.)

Scout does not enjoy the widespread popularity of Google Maps, but many people do use and like it. OpenStreetMap, on the other hand, has explosive potential. Google charges app companies and others that use its maps inside applications. The charges add up and become painful as applications scale. No one blames Google for the charges. But the new Scout alternative, powered by OpenStreetMap, has the potential to disrupt the maps market. It undercuts Googles rates significantly and allows developers to white-label mapping, something that Google doesn’t really do.

As more and more app developers adopt OSM, then the network effects become more pronounced. OSM can start to build in data collection systems that will allow its growing user base to collect more data from handsets (anonymously) to improve data quality. OSM, too, could become a competing marketplace for dollars made out from search. In an age when app popularity waxes and wanes in record time, the hammerlock of Google Maps would become far more tenuous. Granted, Google still has tremendous advantages in this arena. Integration of GoogleNow and Gmail into Google Maps makes Google’s mapping product much stickier.

OpenStreetMap does not have the same rich ecosystem of tools and user communities that have grown up around the Google Maps. Not yet, at least. Maps are a form of information and information does want to be free. Unlike the Internet, which Google must maintain a massive infrastructure to effectively catalog and scan, location data is comparatively finite and static. For its part, Google has added crowd-sourced data from users of its Waze app but these users are not as actively participating in the mapping project and are mainly reporting road conditions.

So collecting and collating all the location data in the world will become easier and easier geo-information rides the Moore’s Law Curve down and benefits from new data capture mechanisms such as drones, cheap sensors, and constellations of micro satellites. And having 1.5 million human powered sensors just might be enough to give OSM and Telenav the push to catch up and surpass Google Maps on data quality, at a fraction of the cost. The race is one.