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Founder: OpenStreetMap Already As Good Or Better Than Google Maps


Steve Coast founded OpenStreetMap (OSM) in the UK in 2004. It’s 10 years old this year. He was inspired by the Wikipedia model and compelled by a lack of available map and location data in the UK at that time.

Coast now works for GPS navigation company Telenav, which owns location-based mobile ad network Thinknear. Not long ago Telenav also acquired Europe-based skobbler, which built a popular consumer-navigation app on top of OSM data. Telenav offers an equivalent, free consumer navigation/local search in Scout. The two apps are being merged later this year.

Earlier this week Telenav held a press day intended to discuss mapping and navigation and showcase the company’s capabilities and products. The company also made several announcements, including that Scout navigation and routing in the US are now entirely built on top of OSM, indicating how much the latter has matured.

Several sessions and speakers spent time contrasting Telenav’s mapping apps and capabilities with Google and Apple Maps.

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We were introduced to the OSM editing process by Coast and learned a great deal about OSM’s progress in the past few years. He and others at Telenav made the claim that in cities around the world (though not in some rural or undeveloped areas) OSM data are at least as good as Google Maps data.

In support of that Telenav showed a range of contrasting screenshots from cities around the world, including World Cup host country Brazil. I haven’t “reality checked” some of the claims by doing my own systematic comparison of Google (or Apple) Maps and OSM.

Nonetheless, the presentation was impressive. Telenav technical personnel also appeared to take special pleasure in comparing their offline mapping capabilities vs. those of Google Maps. (Nokia’s Here Maps have also long had offline functionality.)

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“Google’s offline maps are basically just a small screenshot,” explained skobbler co-founder Philipp Kandal. By comparison, he said, users can download fully functional digital maps (of cities, states or countries) that include search and routing and can be used entirely offline without incurring any carrier data fees.

I spoke privately to Coast later in the day. My questions surrounded data quality and OSM controls to prevent mischief. He explained that there were a range of checks and balances to prevent “mapjacking.” He also said that Telenav had been testing routing via OSM for several months (prior to that day’s announcement). He said that it was at parity with Google Maps, which is quite a claim.

Coast asserted that OSM data will only continue to get better and richer (although he would like much more UI polish). He said it would be difficult ultimately for Google to match OSM’s local editors and the specificity and quality of OSM’s data.

Ironically Google Maps were cast in the internet villain role (usually reserved for Apple) of being “closed” and “proprietary,” in contrast to OSM’s “open” and democratic model.

The major asset that Google has that OSM does not, however, is photography (Street View and indoor imagery). That may turn out to be a bulwark against any sort of OSM disruption of Google. That, and the fact that most ordinary map users (mobile, online) have little or no awareness of OSM.

In addition Telenav and Scout are not household brand names; Google was just named the world’s most valuable brand, partly because of global consumer awareness. Indeed, that’s the thing that smaller mapping companies (and even Bing or Nokia) are ultimately up against — the Google brand.

Postscript: Telenav also announced a developer SDK to integrate their routing and OSM mapping data into third party apps. Fitness app Strava is the first formally announced developer-publisher to build on top of the SDK.

 

 

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