OpenStreetMap posing surprise threat to Google Maps

The announcement last week that the Wikimedia Foundation will switch from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap for its cartographic needs marks the latest in an increasingly long line of high-profile defections.

Wikipedia’s Yuvaraj Pandian wrote in a blog post announcing the move that OpenStreetMap’s mission is similar to the foundation’s own.

“This closely aligns with our goal of making knowledge available in a free and open manner to everyone. This also means we no longer have to use proprietary Google APIs in our code, which helps it run on the millions of cheap Android handsets that are purely open source and do not have the proprietary Google applications,” he said.

Since it surpassed Mapquest in April 2009, according to statistics from Experian Hitwise, Google Maps has been more or less the only game in town for online mapping.

Several factors, however, have begun to drive users away from Google’s offering, including the announcement in January of plans to begin charging for use of the Google Maps API and the timely rise in the public consciousness of OpenStreetMap.

A grassroots project that aggregates location data collected by hundreds of thousands of volunteers, OSM does not charge for API access, asking only that a citation be provided. Along with the Wikimedia decision, recent converts to the new map service include location-based social media company Foursquare and even MapQuest, which now uses OSM’s data instead of its own in-house information.

More tellingly, key Google competitors in other spheres, Microsoft in particular, have backed OSM enthusiastically. The Redmond giant has provided financial support to the project since 2010, along with a wealth of mapping data for OSM’s use. Apple has also used OSM, though this is reportedly a stop-gap measure until it can develop its own replacement for Google Maps.

While Google Maps remains the dominant player in the mapping space, the number of major users moving away from the service could be a sign of things to come. While particularly large-scale Google Maps customers have long paid hefty fees for API access, the availability of a crowd-sourced alternative—along with the expansion of the paid access policy to far smaller companies—could spell real trouble for the search powerhouse.

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