Thursday, March 1, 2012

Foursquare’s Transition from GoogleMap to OpenStreetMap

Yesterday, Foursquare announced, on their official blog, their decision to embrace the OpenStreetMap movement. Instead of continuing to use GoogleMap API, Foursquare decided to partner with a startup MapBox, using MapBox Street to power all of their maps, starting today. OpenStreetMap is an open, crowd-sourced global atlas. Because MapBox internally uses OpenStreetMap, foursquare no longer relies on any proprietary map information.

Although Foursquare claimed that they made this big technical transition because they would like to have more design flexibility, to support other startups, and to be able to use the Leaflet javascript library, many believe that the ultimate reason behind Foursquare’s transition is GoogleMap API’s new pricing policy. The pricing for GoogleMap APIs may not be very expensive, but for a startup with large amount of map usage, such as Foursquare, GoogleMap may be unaffordable. Thus, even though OpenStreetMap does not offer very good coverage in many places, especially relatively remote ones, Foursquare is somehow forced to transition to open-source data.

To me, this transition means much more than just moving to more economically affordable data. It really reflects an important change recently in many of the startups that use maps to provide location-related services. A few years ago, all the GPS device manufacturers would still have to make their own maps, and even Internet startups like Yelp or Foursquare would have to rely on map databases from big companies, such as Google. However, we are seeing increasingly more new companies that use and contribute to open-source maps. Factual seeks to integrate available open-source data (mostly geographical information) in an easy-to-use and coherent fashion; Waze uses crowd-sourced map and crowd-uploaded real time traffic data to provide driving directions. None of these promising startups relies on big company’s databases. Although open-source maps currently do not have the coverage of GoogleMap, they are getting better and better each day, as more and more people contribute to them. Waze, for example, updates the map automatically according to uploaded driving data. Google may have cars that drive around the US very frequently to track down geographical changes, but if enough people use open and crowd-sourced maps, they can be updated even faster and more accurately than GoogleMap. In a few years, we may see that crowd-sourced maps will gradually take over the Internet map market.

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