Trends of Online Mapping Portals

Last week there were several announcements made that show the direction of the online mapping portals. Satellite images and slippy maps are no longer differentiators for attracting users, everyone has them and as I noted last week there are now companies that have cropped up to service companies that want their own maps. Some of these new differentiators are immersive experiences, owning the stack, and data!

Immersive experience within the browser – A couple of weeks ago Google maps added building frames that are visible at street level in some cities. These 2.5D frames are very clean and useful when trying to place something on a street.

google 2.5d maps

Now the Mercury News (warning: annoying reg required; found via TechCrunch) is reporting that these builds will soon be fully fleshed out.

The Mercury News has learned that Google has quietly licensed the sensing technology developed by a team of Stanford University students that enabled Stanley, a Volkswagon Touareg R5, to win the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. In that race, the Stanford robotic car successfully drove more than 131 miles through the Mojave Desert in less than seven hours.

The technology will enable Google to map out photo-realistic 3-D versions of cities around the world, and possibly regain ground it has lost to Microsoft’s 3-D mapping application known as Virtual Earth.

The license will be exclusive, but don’t think Google will be the only ones with 3-D in the browser. Microsoft has had 3-D for a while now (unfortunately, it requires the .NET framework; my assumption is that the team is busy converting it to SilverLight). 3-D is going to become a standard part of mapping applications. The trick will be making sure that the extra data doesn’t get in the way of the user’s quest to get information. Buildings are slow to render and can obscure directions.

This strategy is a nice compliment to their current strategy of gathering and harnessing 3-D models from users. Currently these are only available in Google Earth. The primary location to get them is Google’s 3D Warehouse. I suspect that we will start to see user contributed models on Google Maps.

No word on how many cities Google will roll out their 3D models in or when the new data will be available via their API.

Data, Data, & More Data – Until recently, search engines did not provide neighborhoods as a way of searching cities. Neighborhoods are an incredibly useful, if hard to define, method of defining an area of a city.

Google has now added neighboorhood data to their index, but they have not really done much with it. If you know the neighborhood name then you can use that to supplement searching a city. However, if you are uncertain or if you are unaware of the feature, then you are SOL. There is no indication that the feature exists, how widespread it is, or what the boundaries of the neighborhood are. I hope that they continue to expand on this feature.

ask neighborhood map

Ask on the other hand has done a great job with this feature (see above). They surface nearby neighborhood names for easy follow-on searches (see below). They show you the bounds of the neighborhood quite clearly.

ask neighborhoods

Ask is using data from SF startup Urban Mapping. Urban Mapping claims complete coverage of ~300 urban areas in the US and Canada (with Europe coming). This isn’t an easy problem. Urban Mapping has been working at it for quite sometime and are known for having a good data set. They have also been aggregating transit data. An interesting thing to note is that many of the same neighborhoods available on Ask are also available on Google maps (examples: Tenderloin, SF: Google, Ask; Civic Center, SF: Google, Ask) No word yet if any of the other big engines are going to add neighborhood data, but my guess is that it will soon become a standard feature; it’s too useful to not have.

Own the Stack – Until recently, Yahoo! used deCarta to handle creating directions (or routing). They have announced that they have taken ownership of this part of the stack and have built their own routing engine. Ask and Google still use deCarta. Microsoft has always had their own. Yahoo! is hoping to make their new engine a differentiator. In some ways this is analogous to Microsoft’s purchase of Vexcel, a 3D imagery provider. Microsoft did not want the same 3D data as Google Earth or any other search engine for its 3D world.

I think that any vendor servicing Google, Microsoft, Ask, Yahoo or MapQuest will have to keep an eye on their next source of revenue. Those contracts aren’t going to necessarily last too long. The geostack is too valuable to outsource.

There is only one part of the stack that I think *might* be to expensive for any one of the engines to buy or build out right. That’s the street data and it’s a data source primarily supplied by two companies, NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas. NAVTEQ has a market cap of 3.5 bilion dollars as of this writing; Tela Atlas has one of 1.4 billion pounds. These would be spendy purchases. Microsoft is currently working closely with Facet Technology Corporation to collect street data for cities to add a street-level 3D layer (see Facet’s SightMap for a preview), but this Facet is not collecting data to match the other players. It will be interesting to see if Yahoo! parleys its partnership with OpenStreetMap into a data play.

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