Linux, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft want to break the Google Maps monopoly

Linux, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft want to break the Google Maps monopoly

The Overture Maps logo.
Enlarge / The Overture Maps logo.

Overture Maps Foundation

Google Maps is getting some competition. The Linux Foundation announced Overture Maps, a “new collaborative effort to develop interoperable open map data as a shared asset that can strengthen mapping services worldwide.” It’s an open-source mapping effort that includes a list of heavy hitters: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Meta, Microsoft and TomTom, with the foundation adding that the project is “open to all communities with a common interest in building of open map data.”

The Linux Foundation has a press release about the project and a new website for the Overture Maps Foundation. The press release outlined the scope of the project, which aims to:

  • Collaborative Map Building: Overture aims to incorporate data from various sources, including Overture members, civil society organizations and open data sources.
  • Global Entity Reference System: Overture will simplify interoperability with a system that connects entities from different datasets to the same real entities.
  • Quality assurance processes: Ouverture data will undergo validation to detect card errors, breakage and vandalism to help ensure that card data can be used in production systems.
  • Structured data schema: Overture will define and drive a common, structured and documented data schema to create an easy-to-use ecosystem of map data.

If you say, “Wait! Isn’t there already an open source mapping community out there?” There is, and it’s called “OpenStreetMap,” the Wikipedia of maps that anyone can edit. The Overture’s press release states: “The project will seek to integrate with existing open map data from projects such as OpenStreetMap and city planning departments, along with new map data contributed by members and built using computer vision and AI/ML techniques to ‘ an existence to create digital record of the physical world.”

One of the frequently asked questions on the Overture website asks about OpenStreetMap and its relationship with Overture: “Overture is a data-centric map project, not a community of individual map editors. Therefore, Overture is intended to be complementary to OSM. We combine OSM with other sources to produce new open map datasets. Overture data will be available for use by the OpenStreetMap community under compatible open data licenses. Overture members are encouraged to contribute directly to OSM.”

It sounds like the Overture Foundation is unhappy with the OpenStreetMap data structure and wants to clean things up, saying: “Open map data cannot have the structure needed to easily build map products. Overture will define a common, well-structured adoption and drives. , and documented data schema to create an easy-to-use ecosystem of map data.”

Break the yoke of the Google Maps API

All this data and interoperability talk makes this project look more Google Maps oriented API rather than the consumer-level navigation application. All of Google’s mapping data is in the consumer app, but it’s also available to developers via the Google Maps API. The API lets them embed a map into a project and draw a UI around it, or they can query the Google Maps database for specific information. For services like carpooling, transporters, food delivery services and flight tracking, they often just want to show a map without worrying about mapping the whole world and keeping it up to date. The Google Maps API allows any developer to include the world-class Google Maps dataset in their application, provided they are willing to pay a hefty price.

The Maps API began as a low-cost service that enticed companies to build a business on top of Google’s API, but since Google’s rise to mapping dominance, it has put the screws to developers with anti-competitive terms and rising prices. In 2018, Google Maps increased the price by more than 1,400 percent, and many developers were forced to stop using Google Maps or go bankrupt. The US Department of Justice launched an investigation into Google Maps earlier this year over concerns about car app bundling and anti-competitive terms of service. Google prohibits Maps API clients from “re-creating Google products or features,” which is an impossible standard for a company the size of Google and could mean a developer would have to shut down if Google one day found a competing project start. It also prohibits the combination of Google Maps data with any other data set and completely prohibits its use in cars.

If Overture Maps succeeds, it could lower costs for everyone. Ouverture member companies are required to pay an annual membership fee to the foundation, with members at the “Steering” level paying $3 million a year and dedicating 20 engineers to the project (registrations are currently open). This is nothing compared to what a large company will pay for access to the Google Maps API. When Uber held its IPO in 2019, the company reportedly paid $58 million for access to Google Maps API over the previous three years, and that was mostly before the Google Maps price hike. $3 million a year is a bargain compared to that.

Stay tuned for a launch in the first half of 2023

Overture says it will “release its first datasets in the first half of 2023” and “share more details once we’re ready.”

The code to “help developers process and effectively use Overture map data and the global entity reference system” will eventually be on GitHub. Initially, the foundation aims to release “basic layers, including building, road and administrative information”, with later plans to introduce “new layers such as places, routing or 3D building data”.

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