Biggest Data

Turns out maps matter.

That's always been the case for me. I'm a map freak. I own hundreds of paper maps in various specialties, plus many atlases, books on geography, geology and other geo-obsessions. But I'm no longer an edge case, because maps are proving to be essential on smartphones, which today approaches a billion or more people. Digital maps on phones are now among the core portfolio of smartphone apps, alongside voice, text, calendar and contacts. What could be more mobile about a phone than a map to help the user look things up and get around?

In appearance and function, smartphone maps evolved from standalone GPS units, which were limited to location lookup and turn-by-turn directions in both text and voice form. But maps on phones grew much deeper, because boundless amounts of memory, intelligence and usage-based heuristics could be located in the cloud, and delivered to the app and the user through an API over a live data connection.

Nobody has done more with cloud-based mapping than Google. By the middle of this year, Google-made or -based map apps were the primary sources of location and navigation information for users carrying all kinds of mobile devices—especially Android and Apple mobile devices. Among smartphones, that pair alone comprised about a 90% market share in the US.

In September 2012, however, Apple released iOS 6 and the iPhone 5, both with a new Maps app that did not use Google as a data source. The new Google-free Maps app quickly turned into Apple's worst fail since the Newton. Initial sales of the iPhone 5 were good, as were installs of iOS 6. But then came reports of the new Maps app's disabilities, which were extreme. Missing were countless major points of interest, such as the entire subway systems of New York, London and Paris. Museums were moved into rivers. Dead businesses came to life, and live businesses went away. At the time of this writing (in early October 2012), iPhone 5 sales projections have been revised downward, and Apple's stock is dipping as well. The map debacle may not be the only reason, but it's still a big one.

Why would Apple do something so obviously harmful to itself? Because Google was clearly withholding essential mapping features from iOS to favor Android, and Apple needed to rid itself of a clearly hostile supplier. As an owner of both Android and Apple phones, that much was obvious to me. But news of it didn't make the mainstream press (at least as far as I know) until David Pogue reported as much in his New York Times column of September 27, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/technology/personaltech/apples-new-maps-app-is-upgraded-but-full-of-snags-review.html?_r=0):

After poking around, here's what I've learned.

First, why Apple dropped the old version: Google, it says, was saving all the best features for phones that run its Android software. For example, the iPhone app never got spoken directions or vector maps (smooth lines, not tiles of pixels), long after those features had come to rival phones.

Apple has a variety of replacement data sources, starting with TomTom, the Netherlands-based maker of navigation (mostly GPS) systems. TomTom's primary data source is its Tele-Atlas subsidiary, which it acquired for 2.9 billion euros in 2008. The prior year, Nokia acquired Navteq, Tele-Atlas' main competitor, for 5.7 billion euros. Google used Tele-Atlas as a source until October 2009, when it became its own primary data source.

Google, Navteq and Tele-Atlas all deploy special vehicles on streets to create, correct and enhance mapping. In Google's case, this also has included mapping of Wi-Fi access points to fine-tune a user's location further. Microsoft, Google and Apple also have aerial views provided both by satellites and low-flying aircraft. And all are feeding their clouds and crunching up data gathered by watching what users do.

At this point, it would be easy to digress into vendor sports and handicap which of the map data sources and mobile device suppliers will win in the marketplace. But instead, I want to look at what all this says about dependencies. What we see here is the replacement of the platform with the Big Data API—let's call it a BiGDAPI—as a single source of market-making and market-breaking dependency.

Google's passive-aggressive map app game with Apple, and Apple's refusal to keep playing it, are both evidence of Google's huge leverage through its map BiGDAPI.

The term "Big Data" has been around for a long time, but has obtained buzzphrase status only in the last two years. Although much that can be said about Big Data is positive and harmless (better medicine, better science, better analytic fodder for countless good purposes), one unspoken motivation behind the buzz is obtaining high degrees of market leverage. And much of that leverage is not in harmony with the constructive motivations and practices behind free software, open source and Linux. Because, behind many of the big APIs are vast jungles of exclusive and patent-protected functionalities and restrictions around use. Such as, for example, the spoken turn-by-turn directions Google wouldn't allow Apple to use. It can be dispiriting to see platform leverage exceeded by large proprietary databases and exclusive services made available through APIs. But it's important to bring attention to what's going on, so here we are.

We also should remember that good things come from APIs. For exposing organizational competencies in purely useful ways, nothing beats them. (For a sample, take a look at the growing list of APIs at ProgrammableWeb.com: http://www.programmableweb.com/apis/directory.)

One hopeful force on the mapping front is OpenStreetMap.org, which has been crowdsourcing maps data for years. It has an API too (http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/API). Perhaps in time, free developers and users can best the sums of data currently locked up in proprietary mapping bases, and the analytics as well. But until then, it's helpful just to watch what's happening in the mapping space, and how dependent we remain on proprietary companies and BiGDAPIs over which we have little control.

Data graphic via Shutterstock.com.

______________________

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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Too bad corporations have all

Anonymous's picture

Too bad corporations have all the power that prevents technology from fast development. I think technology has to be available to everyone in the world, because technology is able to save lifes and make lifes more easy. I love to travel and I am always shocked to see what third world countries are using sometimes. I always find my travel partner at WantedTravelPartner.com at I really advice to have a look at this wonderful website.

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OSM, Megacorps, free and open beating captive and closed

Doc Searls's picture

I agree that we need to keep fighting the good fight; and by we I mean individuals, by ourselves and together. We need to keep proving that free and open beats captive and closed.

And I too believe skyviews matter. What is there to stop small aircraft (general aviation) pilots from adding their own views to the public domain, so they're available on OSM? Perhaps just a non-awareness that they can contribute something.

Take a look at http://maps.bing. Now look at "Birds Eye View" under "Aerial." Zoom in. That's shot from a small plane, flying a grid over terrain. Here's a view of a farm in New Hampshire: http://binged.it/14CUzJK . Click on the curved arrows around the compass to see it from four directions. Somebody did that for Microsoft (which owns Bing) But there is nothing to stop anybody else from doing it, and releasing it to everybody.

I've been doing something like that myself with geology in particular and aerial photography in general.

The people in The Public Laboratory have also been doing good stuff in this general direction. So there is hope.

But that hope will be limited as long as it is sub-obvious to business in general that free and open is the founding environment for business. Not captive and closed.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

It's a shame when big

Video Production Phoenix's picture

It's a shame when big corporations like Apple, Microsoft and Google have API's with patent-protected functionalities and restrictions around them. It has been shown time and time again that the most benefits and creativity come when there are little to no restrictions on built of use. Prime example: the Internet. Let's just keep fighting the good fight when it comes to net neutrality, because once that goes, the thriving, growing Internet economy will slowly start dieing, just like the average brick and mortar businesses of nowadays, which, sadly, have been regulated and taxed to damn near death.

Personally, I haven't seen

Anonymous's picture

Personally, I haven't seen OSM do maps using satelite views, and without those, the closest OSM can get to real terrain topology, is something akin to Googlemap's terrain. For the most part and when I'm in unfamiliar territory, actual skyviews matter to me, and are irreplaceable where my safety and security matter, especially in areas of no cellular coverage (why else the (largely suppressed) stink over Google first removing the caching features in downloaded maps, and then partially recinding their position?).

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