OpenStreetMap may offer a cheaper alternative to Google Maps

Peggy AlbrightMobile data and mapping services go together, for obvious reasons, so when there is a change in how mobile companies are using mapping technologies, it bears watching.

Lately some prominent companies like Wikipedia and Apple (NASDAQ:APPL) have dropped their use of Google Maps from certain mobile applications and they've replaced it with the crowdsourced and open source platform, called OpenStreetMap.

The reason for the switch is financial: This year Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) started charging fees for access to the Google Maps API for high volume users, and the fees are considered substantial. While most developers won't be affected because the fees kick in only when customers drive more than 25,000 map views per day, the increased attention on OSM may prompt more developers to consider using the platform for practical reasons: it gives them more control over how they develop their mapping applications and so they can be more creative with it. 

"The mapping industry, without picking on any specific group, is in the habit of bundling things together. If you use any part of the stack you have to use the whole stack. And that's not what developers want," said Scott Rafer, CEO of Lumatic.

Rafer's company is using OSM for its mobile application, called Lumatic City Maps. The application incorporates street-level photography with maps to create a photo- and map-based slide show that people can view, from their Android phones and iPhones, to obtain local information and directions while they are walking around in a city. The application for San Francisco is now available and the company is adding apps for other cities.

Rafer said that with OSM, developers have more flexibility when selecting the mapping components they use and they can combine features from various resources to create mapping applications that specifically suit their needs.

OSM itself is an interesting technology that got started about seven years ago in London as a grassroots effort with volunteers supplying mapping data to the project in the same way people have built Wikipedia:  by constantly updating the information in real time. The notion was considered far-fetched for maps back then, but several hundred thousand volunteers have been contributing to it with data relevant to their personal interests, which could be anything from cycling, jogging, hunting, skiing, diving or climbing, and they also map and update their neighborhoods regularly. The result is a highly detailed map full of information that people in a particular location are interested in.

Nick Black, the co-founder of CloudMade, which provides developer tools for location-based services that use OSM, said from the outset he and the organizations considered that the mapping project could become fundamental in the mobile industry. He said mobile developers can use OSM-based maps to "create a unique experience to make their map stand out from the crowd."

"We're seeing interest to put this extra layer of relevance" in mobile apps, he said.

Wikipedia said this month that it is now using OSM instead of Google Maps for the new version of its application for the iOS.

Apple is using OSM for iPhoto, its new photo management app for the iPad and iPhone, which it launched last month. In February, foursquare announced that it is embracing the OSM movement, and while its implementation right now focuses on maps for its web version and for mobile, it still using the Google Maps features that are integrated with iOS and Android.

Certainly Google accomplished an engineering feat in creating Google Maps. Its initial offering of it for free to most companies has helped bring the technology into everyday online and mobile applications. This is to be appreciated and respected. But more developers will certainly give another look at the alternative and less costly approach offered by OpenStreetMap, if they haven't considered it already. Access to more tools, databases and resources in innovative and still-emerging sectors such as the location-based segment should be considered a good thing. --Peggy