Google Maps versus OpenStreetMap: charting new territory on the Web?

Article  by  Jean-Christophe PLANTIN  •  Published 20.09.2013  •  Updated 20.09.2013
Online mapping services have long been dominated by Google Maps. The rise of Creative Commons-licensed service OpenStreetMap could shake up the established order, threatening Web emperor Google.


Eight years after its online launch, Google Maps dominates the Web and mobile apps as the point of reference for digital mapping. However, recent changes in Google’s strategy may undermine its reigning position. In parallel, the expansion of OpenStreetMap (OSM), a collaborative mapping service under Creative Commons license, also seems to be challenging the Mountain View-based company’s monopoly. How is the online mapping market currently being shaken up?

“Made by Google” maps: a history of hacking

Google launched its online mapping service in February 2005. While digital maps had been present online since the early 1990s, Google’s service set itself apart from the competition with its user-friendly consultation interface and greater interactivity[+] NoteMuki HAKLAY, Alex SINGLETON, Chris PARKER “Web Mapping 2.0: The Neogeography of the GeoWeb”, Geography Compass, Vol. 2 n°6, 2008, pp. 2011-2039.X [1].
The success of Google Maps largely grew from an entirely unexpected application of the tool, which sparked off new ways of using its mapping abilities. A few weeks after its launch, Paul Rademacher, working for DreamWorks at the time, decided to adapt the service in order to facilitate his apartment search in San Francisco: using reverse engineering, he retrieved the “tiles” that make up the maps displayed on the Google Maps site, and simultaneously extracted apartment ads from the Craigslist San Francisco site (using a method known as Web scraping). Rademacher hardly suspected that this application would open the path to the widespread use of maps for the geolocation of third-party data, leading to the emergence of the mashup – veritable Web 2.0 cornerstone, according to Tim O’Reilly.
While this online mapping service had been solely intended to search for addresses and directions, Google quickly understood its potential for being used in other ways, and responded in two phases: firstly, Paul Rademacher was hired rather than prosecuted for hacking the platform; and secondly, in June 2005, the Google Maps API (application programming interface) was made public. This data library is searched by users’ requests in order to display maps on their Web pages – a process that allows for map personalization (size, zoom scale, default location etc.) and facilitates interoperability between the APIs of other services and online applications.

The Tweereal application searches Twitter’s API to obtain the number of Tweets and Google Maps’ API to geolocate these tweets

This was a turning point: APIs, mashups and programming language went hand in hand with maps becoming an integral feature of Web 2.0. Just as 19th century engineers and doctors weakened geographers’ stronghold on maps through the rise in thematic maps[+] NoteGilles PALSKY, Des chiffres et des cartes. La cartographie quantitative en France au XIXème siècle, C.T.H.C., 1996.X [2], digital mapping slipped out of the grasp of experts in geographic information systems (GIS), and into that of Web developers and information designers.
Back to summary

Google Maps and 2.0 maps

While this impromptu hacking placed the spotlight on Google’s role in the online mapping sector, a number of other mapping services had made their APIs available online starting in 2005: Microsoft’s Bing Maps, the UK Ordnance Survey’s OpenSpace, the French National Geographic Institute’s Géoportail, and the collaborative open source mapping project OpenStreetMap (OSM).
Despite this wealth of APIs, Google Maps still appears to hold the leading position on a sizable market. The site ProgrammableWeb lists the latest mashups and APIs on the Web, and mapping mashups represent the biggest proportion of mashups on the site: on March 25, 2012, 28% of the 6,544 mashups present online used a mapping API (the second-biggest category fell to 12%); within this avalanche of map-based applications, the vast majority (2,354 mashups) used the Google Maps API. In comparison, the second-biggest mapping service, Microsoft’s Bing Maps, was only used for 175 mashups and Yahoo Maps for 135 mashups.
How can this success be explained? In 2006, Rich Gibson and Schuyler Erle highlighted three strengths of Google’s API: clear and responsive user interface, quick-loading maps and a customer-oriented service facilitating map display on any Web page[+] NoteRich GIBSON, Schuyler ERLE, Google Maps Hacks. Tips and tools for geographic searching and remixing, O’Reilly, 2006.X [3]. Furthermore, incorporating this service was (at the time) free and unrestricted, so long as it was limited to non-commercial use; lastly, a dynamic community of developers contributed to the large number of applications using Google maps.
Back to summary

Maps in the Google ecosystem: between “business platform” and indexable data

What stake does the information search giant have in its mapping service? How does Google incorporate this into its business model? A number of hypotheses are possible.
Providing a reusable mapping service allows Google to hold a dominant position within the Web as contemporary platform (once again using the terms of Tim O’Reilly). Driven by the emergence of Web 2.0, the Web as platform no longer strictly uses hyperlinks to connect content: the growing interoperability of Web services is based on the intermediary of APIs, which allow existing services to be reprogrammed to create new applications.

 The application “Novels on location” uses Google Maps and Amazon APIs to geolocate books according to the story setting

As reported by Jeff Jarvis[+] NoteJeff JARVIS, What would Google do?, Harper Business, 2009.X [4], Google could have decided to maintain control over the mapping data placed online, creating an audience that it might have then monetized through advertising. Instead, Google was much more ambitious in terms of the development of its mapping service: after Paul Rademacher’s exploit, Google decided to place its Google Maps application online in the form of an API-based open platform, serving as a mapping basis for new applications. The figures provided by ProgrammableWeb seem to confirm the wisdom of this strategy of openness.
 Distributing a reusable mapping tool allowed Google to position itself as an important Web 2.0 gateway.  Furthermore, Google’s propensity for ever-greater innovation is notorious, as seen, for example, in its “20 percent time” policy, which allows Google employees to spend one day a week developing their own projects (formerly housed by the now-defunct Google Labs). Faithful to the libertarian origins of the Internet – which, as opposed to the telephone for example, did not have one predefined function from the start (as Clay Shirky recalls[+] NoteClay SHIRKY, Here comes everybody. How change happens when people come together, Penguin Books, 2008.X [5]) – Google bet on a mapping service without necessarily providing a set agenda for how it was to be used. In the context of an economy of pollination, the goal is not only to release the killer application, but furthermore to provide a medium for the creation of a multitude of innovative applications, in the manner of other Google services: distributing a reusable mapping tool allowed Google to position itself as an important Web 2.0 gateway.
Lastly, maps allow Google to collect a large amount of data. We know that the company’s original business is ranking information present on the Web using its PageRank algorithm. In order to increase the relevance of its results, Google is thus on a constant quest to expand the domain of available information to which it applies its algorithm. However, not all of the world’s information takes the form of HTML content able to be indexed by Google robots: geographic information, for example, must be “translated” in order to be indexable. Entering mapping information thus increases the stock of information that can be treated by the Google search engine. And this is hardly negligible: in 2007, “at least 20 percent of Web pages [contained] easily recognizable and unambiguous geographic identifiers”.
Back to summary

Participative maps: Google Maps versus OpenStreetMap?

Google’s mapping service has witnessed two major transformations in recent years, with consequences for the geopolitics of online mapping players. In 2008, Google launched its participative mapping service, Google Map Makers, allowing Internet users to complete the Google maps available (by adding a site or a road, for example). This service, launched in France in March 2012, is inspired by OpenStreetMap’s collaborative mapping model, which is often referred to as the “Wikipedia of maps”, allowing any user to edit map data. This use of crowdsourcing allows Google to get around certain obstacles specific to the treatment of geographic information. Certain data on points of interest is difficult to access, generally listed in proprietary paid services[+] NoteSuch as the Yellow Pages for the phone numbers of professionals.X [6]. A second source of difficulty lies in the fact that maps are constantly changing (new shops open, new roads are built), hence the need for constant updating. Data provided by Internet users thus allows the difficulties in terms of access and data updating to be overcome, and at the same time provides a free workforce. The effectiveness of this participative model has already been proven: immediately following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, an OSM team dispatched on-site rectified the lack of geographic data on the island by mapping it over the course of just a few short days.

OpenStreetMap’s Project Haiti

Beyond crowdsourcing, Google seems to have been inspired by another one of OpenStreetMap’s strengths: high-precision mapping. Indeed, as anyone is free to modify OSM maps, they may reach an extremely high level of detail, as seen in the example of the Berlin Zoo as viewed on OSM versus Google Maps. Using this principle, Google began mapping the inside of JFK Airport, combining top-down data contribution (through access to facilities’ floor plans) with bottom-up efforts (launching a mobile mapping application for floor plans).
In doing so, Google has attracted the ire of a number of mapping analysts and OSM members. While the OpenStreetMap community publishes its maps under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license (CC BY-SA), Mikel Maron criticized the Google license for restricting the use of mapping data on non-Google services. He also accuses Google of stealing the concept of Mapping Parties, which bring volunteers together to map specific areas, particularly useful in sensitive areas (for example, the project to map the Kibera shantytown). The debate over the ownership of data obtained via crowdsourcing was recently sparked off once again with the January 2012 signature of an agreement between Google and the World Bank for the promotion of the use of the former’s maps by international organizations, with the risk of a rise in the geographic data falling into Google’s hands. This, alongside the recent vandalism of OpenStreetMap by Google employees, seems to indicate that the rivalry between the two organizations is growing.  
Other, less cut-and-dried opinions place greater emphasis on the two mapping services’ shared points and reciprocal advantages. As highlighted by Frederik Ramm, the OSM community must not mistake its target. According to him, OSM and Google launched their mapping services to respond to a shared problem: the absence of free, reusable geographic data at accessible prices, previously jealously guarded by private operators (Navteq and Téléatlas, for example) or institutional organizations (the French IGN and Ordnance Survey, before they opened the aforementioned APIs). Google furthermore popularized online maps – a variety of reasons leading the author to state that “Google is not the enemy”.
A new element in Google’s strategy may potentially more drastically transform the power struggle between the two organizations: the change in the pricing system applied to access its maps.
Back to summary

The paid Google Maps API: risky bet or business as usual?

In October 2011, Google decided to start charging fees for access to the Google Maps API once daily usage limits are surpassed. Every time an Internet user visits a site that uses a Google map, a request is sent to the Google Maps API, and the number of requests made by a given site thus equals its number of visits. The more popular a site or application, the more its risks having to pay in order to continue to display a Google map.
Is this a risky bet for Google, or simply business as usual? In fact, many services using Google Maps already pay usage fees, having adopted the Google Maps API for Business offer. Conversely, the vast majority of sites using Google Maps may continue to do so without paying, remaining below the daily usage limit for free access: the Static Maps API and JS Maps API v3 have the comfortable daily usage limit of 25,000 map views before fees are incurred. Thus, only 0.32% of the API users are affected by this measure. However, this tiny percentage includes major customers such as Apple, whose tens of millions of iPads and iPhones sold worldwide come with the Google Maps application built in: at four dollars per 1,000 map views above the daily limit of 25,000, the bill starts to look steep.
Google’s belated decision to monetize its mapping application can be interpreted as a reaction to the high cost of accessing maps: the Mountain View-based company does not undertake satellite imaging of areas around the globe itself (as is the case for Google Street View), but rents maps from private providers. This is expensive and does not decrease over time, as constant updates are necessary.
Google justifies its pricing system by its desire to “encourage responsible use” of map data and “secure [the] long-term future” of the service. This fee hike nevertheless brought about a swift reaction, with a number of applications deciding to abandon Google Maps in favor of OpenStreetMap, including Foursquare and Wikipedia for its mobile apps. Apple also did so in more experimental fashion, adopting OSM maps strictly for its iPhoto app for iOS, but not for the desktop version. Beyond strictly financial reasons, this rejection of Google Maps may be viewed as an opportunity for these companies to disentangle themselves from a forced union with Google, gaining a firmer grip on their own agenda. This distancing may also be explained by rising criticism of Google’s latest applications (with Search Plus Your World first in line), which, for some commentators, have led to a drop in the quality of online search.

Foursquare application using OSM maps
Back to summary

OpenStreetMap and the Open Data boost

In parallel to these changes in Google Maps, OpenStreetMap currently has the wind in its sails. Political authorities are gaining awareness of the advantages of open mapping, as seen in the organization’s presentation before the French Senate on January 11, 2012. However, it remains to be seen whether this appeal was motivated by the then-imminent French presidential election, or by the “open” model itself.

 OpenStreetMap for Paris

The relevance of OSM at a time when Open Data initiatives are multiplying is nevertheless undeniable; these major public databases demand modes of treatment, notably for their visual formatting. Maps are quite often the best option for extracting meaning from data in the form of a spreadsheet or API. Likewise, as OSM provides access to its maps, numerous possibilities for their personalization and handling emerge – difficult on Google’s maps.
This website uses open data on the city of Montpellier to geolocate green spaces on an OSM map

A number of challenges still lie ahead in OSM’s quest to become an indispensable player in online mapping. The quality of its maps is not lacking: in the wake of the debates on the quality of Wikipedia, Muki Haklay demonstrated that the quality of OSM maps very nearly rivals that of Ordnance Survey maps for the UK. More generally, the advantages of OSM maps are also their weak point. Users access data as such and not in the form of Google Maps API-type “tiles”. It is thus necessary to use a third-party application to handle OSM maps – potentially raising the technical obstacles, while the rise of Web maps starting in 2005 was conversely based on their ease of use. Likewise, not all areas are treated equally by OSM maps: while urban areas are thoroughly covered, the same cannot be said of rural areas[+] NoteFor the UK, Muki Kaklay explains this through the socio-professional profile of OSM users: largely male (96%), holding a college degree (78%), aged 20 to 50 years old (86%). These challenges must be tackled in order to spark off the widespread use of OSM maps.X [7].
Will Google’s decision to directly monetize its mapping service prove detrimental to its previous strategy to promote the use of its maps? For its part, OpenStreetMap appears to be directly benefitting from the Google Maps pricing changes, with the migration of Web giants toward its maps; OSM could get a further boost in France through the current effervescence surrounding Open Data. The participative mapping organization could then experience a virtuous circle: as its maps may be edited by all, a rise in users may boost the quality of maps, encouraging more services to migrate toward OSM, thus attracting more users, and so on and so forth.

Translated from the French by
Sara Heft
Photo credits:
- Main image: screenshots, Google Maps and OpenStreetMap
- Screenshot, Tweereal
- Screenshot, Novel on Location 
- Screenshot, Foursquare
- Screenshot, OSM for Paris
- Screenshot, cartoclic
Back to summary


Muki HAKLAY, Alex SINGLETON, Chris PARKER “Web Mapping 2.0: The
Neogeography of the GeoWeb”, Geography Compass, Vol. 2 n°6, 2008, pp. 2011-2039.
Rich GIBSON, Schuyler ERLE, Google Maps Hacks. Tips and tools for geographic searching and remixing, O’Reilly, 2006.
Jeff JARVIS, What would Google do?, Harper Business, 2009.
Clay SHIRKY, Here comes everybody. How change happens when people come together, Penguin books, 2008.
Gilles PALSKY, Des chiffres et des cartes. La cartographie quantitative en France au XIXème siècle, C.T.H.C., 1996.
Yann MOULIER BOUTANG, Le capitalisme cognitif. La nouvelle grande tranformation, Editions Amsterdam, 2007.
Bernhard RIEDER, “Entre marché et communauté: une discussion de la culture participative à l’exemple de Google Maps”, Ludovia conference 2008: “Do it yourself 2.0”, France, 2008. Available on ArchiveSIC.
Arno SCHARL, “Towards the Geospatial Web: Media platforms for Managing Geotagged Knowledge Repositories”, in Arno SCHARL, Klaus TOCHTERMANN (dir.): The Geospatial Web. How geobrowsers, Social Software and the Web 2.0 are shaping the Network Society, pp. 3-14, 2007, Springer.
Nama Raj BUDHATHOKI, Muki HAKLAY, Zorica NEDOVIC-BUDIC, “Who are the Mappers and Why do they map in OpenStreetMap?”, State of the Map. The 4th Annual International OpenStreetMap conference. Girona, Spain. July 9-11, 2010.
Back to summary
  • 1. Muki HAKLAY, Alex SINGLETON, Chris PARKER “Web Mapping 2.0: The Neogeography of the GeoWeb”, Geography Compass, Vol. 2 n°6, 2008, pp. 2011-2039.
  • 2. Gilles PALSKY, Des chiffres et des cartes. La cartographie quantitative en France au XIXème siècle, C.T.H.C., 1996.
  • 3. Rich GIBSON, Schuyler ERLE, Google Maps Hacks. Tips and tools for geographic searching and remixing, O’Reilly, 2006.
  • 4. Jeff JARVIS, What would Google do?, Harper Business, 2009.
  • 5. Clay SHIRKY, Here comes everybody. How change happens when people come together, Penguin Books, 2008.
  • 6. Such as the Yellow Pages for the phone numbers of professionals.
  • 7. For the UK, Muki Kaklay explains this through the socio-professional profile of OSM users: largely male (96%), holding a college degree (78%), aged 20 to 50 years old (86%). These challenges must be tackled in order to spark off the widespread use of OSM maps.
Would you like to add or correct something? Contact the editorial staff