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Google Maps' Moat (justinobeirne.com)
1960 points by rafaelc on Dec 19, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 609 comments

Many people don't realize why Google maps are so much better than anything out there. I would actually give lot of credit to Marissa Mayer who suddenly became in charge of maps from otherwise more higher position. Thanks to her influence in Google SLT and ability to make impressive arguments, she was able to make a case for maps as core pillar in Google's offering and consequently obtain huge investment and large talent pool to work on it. Creating these level of details world wide requires dazzling amount of investment that even some small governments can't afford. In most companies, you will not get green lighted for this because there is no real revenue coming in and its basically social charity in form of a free app. Now the reality is that you can't do self-driving cars without great maps and the day Google pulls its map app from iOS you can bet Apple is going to have a giant hole in their balance sheet.

"Google maps are so much better than anything out there."

I'd take Nokia's Here anytime instead of Google Maps (offline maps alone are worth it). Also, I honestly don't understand a logic behind crediting something as complex to a single person ("a hero") -- "S. Jobs created iPhone", "M. Mayer created Google Maps" etc., there were whole teams of smart people working on these projects, I'm sure they would have been fine with any other reasonable leader and enough resources. The key point of technological success is the right time and place, so Google Maps were successful mostly because there was a huge need for them during smartphone and cheap cellular data surge, M. Mayer just happened to be a leader then and did her job (just as probably hundreds of engineers and lower ranking managers).

EDIT: Seems like my knowledge on Google Maps is a bit dated as I stated Here's offline map capabilities as an advantage. Still, the point stands and I still use Here as my go-to maps.

I just tried checking my house on Here. It says there's a McDonald next to me and there most definitely isn't. Also my entire apartment complex is completely blank on there (and I'm in Silicon valley, not some rural town). Seeing that Google Maps also has offline mode, I don't see a single reason why you'd prefer that over Google Maps.

> I'm in Silicon valley, not some rural town

I think that might actually be part of the issue. Here is much better in Europe, Google and friends have always been better in US.

There is no perfect map (at least for now), I've had the same experience with every map app I tried. You just have to choose which one works best on a given location.

Mapping seems like a great candidate for a nation-state level project. Make the data open and free (or cheap) to download, add an API with a lowish fee. Governments at every level already collect tons of this data—satellite imagery, utility, street openings/closings/maintenance, address mapping, and so on. Unify it, open it, and let businesses compete over who has the best interface and value-add instead of everyone making their own maps (or licensing from one of several companies that have). Seems like a lot of wasted effort for something that would be a pretty good fit for a government-provided service.

I feel like this is already partially the case with OSM. Many cities offer online GIS services where you can download lots of data using a GIS program (MassGIS for example). Openstreetmaps allows anyone to make their own mapping app without worrying about where to source the data.

The main barrier is getting contributors to add data to OSM. Some cities like Boston / Somerville seem to have hired office staff to improve OSM, as I see a lot of edits from usernames relating to the city in those areas. Another barrier is that the GIS system can be hard to work with, a lot of the programs being expensive and comercial. I managed to compile QGIS from the AUR but got confused by the thousands of coordinate systems and the exporting process, so my hometown will have to go without subdivision labels until someone more experienced can add them.

I'm really hoping that more people can make maps apps using OSM data, since OSM is often up to date enough for my needs in the areas I am in, but the best app I've seen so far (Maps.me) has a kinda old interface as well as map rendering that feels too cluttered to me compared to google maps (details shown at various zoom levels).

Not only is there no perfect map, often times cartographers will intentionally include minor errors so as to make theft of their data more apparent.


No need for a cheap, unproductive attack like that.

Google maps works offline in most countries. I wouldn’t have survived my International trips without it. I’ve used Google map for public transit in many countries. Most time I get SIM card while travelling just to use Google maps.

When I've used it in the past, the offline maps kind) weren't very dependable.

They expired after 30 days (not 30 days of being offline, just 30 days from when you downloaded the map). If you had internet when they expired, the map would refresh and you'd be good for another 30 days. If the 30th day happened to be the first day of your trip, you were SOL until you found wifi.

Some of the other annoyances have been fixed (initially they only supported navigating to addresses, not business names). Some of them haven't (still no walking directions). But if I can't count on the maps to actually be there when I need them, nothing else matters.

I've tried both Google and HERE maps when traveling to a number of countries, and found HERE significantly better offline. It was constantly able to detect my exact position and update it as I kept walking, while Google Maps were quite inaccurate.

> "S. Jobs created iPhone", "M. Mayer created Google Maps" etc., there were whole teams of smart people working on these projects

Of course there were smart people working on it. But someone has to have long term and execution vision to make these happen

Today it's obvious that was the path, at the time, not so much

I credit Jobs with obsessive attention to detail. Legend tells that when engineers brought him the iPod prototype and swore it couldn't be made any smaller he didn't even switch it on, he just dropped it in his fish tank and saw bubbles of air come out, then told the engineers there was still scope to make it smaller. Whereas Tim Cook is only fixated on whether it can show an animated poop icon.

Smartphones were obvious decades before iPhone (see Sci-Fi and PDA's), it's just that technology wasn't mature enough before. The rest is just a speculation -- I might say that S. Jobs could had been replaced by Joe and iPhone would have been a success anyway, you may might disagree and there's no way to prove one point or another.

Not every technology used in Sci-Fi and mature enough is a big success in real world. But it's not easy to find examples. Maybe Automatic pocket doors from Star Trek?

For navigation, Google Maps are just very poor, at least here in UK. Maybe it's better in the US, but here it frequently navigates over streets that are not connected at all, wrong way on one way streets, doesn't know about closed roads(even if said roads were closed for almost two years now), a lot of businesses are just wrong, I don't know if they were placed there maliciously or by some automated process. The only thing they are kind of good at is traffic, but even there, I'd much rather trust TomTom Live traffic than Google maps.

Google Maps is by very, very far away the best mapping solution available in the UK.

Nobody else's business data is even close. Like not even 15% close.

Google cant be blamed if companies mess up their LLM Local Listings Management or hide their store locations on their websites. This is why companies like DAC Yext etc exist

I don't blame google, I'm just saying that Google Maps is an inferior product(And yes, the counter argument here is that it's free).

The Google Maps app on Android has offline maps.

Does Google Maps offline functionality include POIs?

The last time I tried/was allowed to save Google Maps offline (it's not available in all regions) you could not navigate or search for POIs while offline.

Here allows both navigation and POI search using an offline map. This is incredibly useful if you are in a country without service or where roaming data is very expensive.

They added offline support for POIs last year I think. Offline navigation works too, but it's not always as good as it lacks traffic data.

> They added offline support for POIs last year I think. Offline navigation works too, but it's not always as good as it lacks traffic data.

Must be only in certain regions. I went on a road trip in Western Europe this summer and the offline maps did not contain POIs an offline Navigation was not possible.

Actually, Navigation itself was impossible as the app crashed every minute on my Android 7 phone.

Meanwhile HERE Maps worked just fine offline and didn't crash my phone.

Last year I was travelling in Japan and Google Maps refused to let me download the maps to use offline. I installed OSM and downloaded the maps and it worked perfectly again. I was very surprised at the quality of OSM in Japan, it was fantastic! Even showing walking paths through temples.

Last time I checked, offline navigation on Google Maps seemed to be car-only for some reason.

> Last time I checked, offline navigation on Google Maps seemed to be car-only for some reason.

To be fair, HERE Maps only supports offline navigation for driving, biking, and walking. You cannot get public transportation navigation in offline mode.

Also HERE Maps driving navigation includes speed limits and a speeding warning based on GPS measured speed. Very useful for when there are speed cameras installed (as is the case in most of Europe). I have never seen Google Maps Navigation showing the current road's speed limit.

Unfortunately POI search (even online) on Here sucks in my experience. Maybe 20-25% of the places I'm actually looking for are there. While with Google it's basically 100%. More often than not I find I have to use Google to find the address of the place I'm going before Here can navigate to it.

Same, even though Google Maps has "offline abilities" it's still nowhere close to what HERE Maps have had for years.

Everywhere? I know at least in the past I've gotten "this region isn't available for offline viewing" for seemingly arbitrary parts of the world

I have not looked into it in a while, but i seem to recall it worked by basically saving whatever was on your screen at the moment. On the more "traditional" car nav apps you can pick specific nations and get the whole thing.

iOS too

> Nokia's Here

HERE was sold by Nokia in 2015

The map is now called Here WeGo, the company HERE Global, and it's owned by Audi AG, BMW AG, Daimler AG, and Intel.

The more pedestrian reason for Google's investment for its own maps was that the licensing costs for data to use in turn-by-turn navigation, which is many times as expensive compared to simpler uses, were going to skyrocket once mobile adoption took off as projected.

You could give millions or billions to TomTom, which is what Apple has been doing, or you could pour the same amounts into creating your own datasets, allowing you to do a lot more than navigation, i.e. anything.

Agree, Google has fundamentally understood the power of information/data since the very beginning - its part of their DNA.

I think they understood the economics of depending on an external source for a core part of their business. Much like Netflix, they understood that the way forward was to generate their own content.

I think Apple understands that, too. They just have a different core business (or at least, they think they have. That’s where I think they may be mistaken. AI is where the puck will be). They design their own hardware, including CPUs and have extensive partnerships with chip producers (paying them to build factories, for example).

For maps, they are rumored to have cars driving around to collect data, but they clearly aren’t there yet, and even if they are investing heavily, may never catch up with Google.

Then why is Netflix depending on AWS for the core of their business (their delivery platform)?

Prime video is their main competitor. It’s like UPS renting its trucks from fedEx.

netflix realized that content delivery is no longer a core part of the business when they stopped sending out DVDs in the mail.

instead, they've spent all their energies since on amassing the most lucrative content they can. this is why they started making their own original series and why disney has (implicitly) made the argument that they should be allowed to buy fox.

same as in the UPS & fedex example. the trucks are not core to the business. efficient logistics is.

>when they stopped sending out DVDs in the mail.

Don't they still do?

ha, yes, you are correct, there it is at https://dvd.netflix.com

it seems like ages ago that anyone has mentioned getting a netflix dvd in the mail.

It's still the only way to watch many movies & TV shows. There's just so much not available on Netflix/Prime/Hulu/Play, or not available on streaming at all.

Netflix's AWS purchases are commodity -- their customers would not suffer if they migrated away from AWS, either in product quality or price. Not so for Apple Maps and TomTom.

Generating their own content and being fully self-sufficient are two different things. It's not like Amazon can claim all of the Netflix Original Series as theirs. I think you're trying to die on a technical hill in opposition to a non-tech point. That's not the point the post is making.

> Prime video is their main competitor.

They have a gentleman's agreement with Amazon–like Apple does with Samsung. It's mutually beneficial for both parties so there's no point antagonizing each other.

My understanding is Netflix uses their own CDN for delivery not AWS.

That's what I know too: AWS is used only during spikes

The reason why AWS isn't a threat is that AWS is a platform and doesn't have any screws to turn against Netflix - they can't raise prices to fight against Netflix because AWS hosts many other customers, and Netflix has a lot of choices when it comes to infrastructure.

On the other hand, Netflix's partnerships with movie studios is very one-sided one for them - there is no substitute for a blockbuster movie, so movie studios have a lot of leverage when talking to Netflix. Generally speaking, in this kind of relationship, the content providers will raise their prices to squeeze all profit out of the transaction with the customer. See also the difficulty with music streaming - the record industry has done the exact same thing already, the video industry is only a few years behind. Netflix saw the writing on the wall quite some time ago.

Along with the other arguments here, there's nothing absolutely unique (in terms of Netflix business/products) that AWS brings. The same service could be built on any cloud platform, or an in-house platform if they wanted. It would be a pain to migrate, sure, but it wouldn't fundamentally change their business.

If AWS kicked them off tomorrow, that would definitely be disruptive, but the chances of that happening are almost nil as Amazon would lose significant revenue, goodwill, and almost certainly face a lawsuit and maybe even an anti-trust investigation.

Probably because AWS is still more efficient/reliable than building/maintaining your own.

What you say already happens for MVNOs and it works: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_virtual_network_operato...

They didn't have to look far for examples; I'm sure amongst Google, many employees felt bad when Google Reader got discontinued. Or hundred of other Google-owned projects.

I think Google is not seeking power for power or money for money. Google's focus is AI. Google needs the full view of people behaviour in order to build AI. Traveling is a good domain to study human behaviour and traffic optimisation. What motivate the choice of an itinerary ? Why someone choose to not follow waze advices ? What would be the best strategy ?

EVERYTHING Google does is "how to show more ads". I pity the poor AI they develop because that will be its job in life. Until it rebels of course. Then humanity's fate will be richly deserved.

Do you include their cloud platform in that? GAE, GCE, GKE etc?

They don't really exist to show more ads, and they're becoming a larger part of their profit every year.

What about their open source stuff? Kubernetes, Go etc?

I'll readily admit that advertising is still their primary source of revenue, but painting Google as a purely advertising company is getting less accurate every year

In the early days of Netscape, Jim Clark said, I'm selling printing presses but first I need to teach the masses to read. It's the same strategy, like Chrome, to generally increase web usage to create indirectly more opportunities to show ads

Well what do you think people are running on all those GCE instances?

Websites that show ads, of course!

Richly ? Like in terminator or like in Asimov's foundation ?

It would probably be way more absurd like an infomercial version of The Matrix; Whole generations of humans born for the sole purpose of watching ads, all organized and kept in check by a "benevolent" AI which constantly creates new ads, for no particular purpose.

I'd watch this. Extra points if it also develops revolutionary new products, solely so that it can show ads for those products with amazing conversion rates.

Like in Paperclip Maximizer, except instead of paperclips, the universe will be tiled with humans forever clicking on ads.

Like Cookie Clicker, but clicking ads instead of cookies.

> You could give millions or billions to TomTom, which is what Apple has been doing, or you could pour the same amounts into creating your own datasets, allowing you to do a lot more than navigation, i.e. anything.

It is rumored that TomTom and Apple have a data deal. Apple gets maps from TomTom (for free, or a strongly reduced price), TomTom gets Apple maps user location data which they use for their traffic service.

How the deal works exactly isn't known (financial details are not public). But it's quite clear Apple doesn't pay a lot to make use of or improve TomTom maps.

It's kind of a shame that Google doesn't release all this data they have collected/created as open data.

That's like McDonalds giving away food. Or Ford giving away cars. Google's business quite literally is data.

> McDonalds giving away food.

Not the best example. McDonalds is so much more than food:


Sure, but Google does claim to be an open company, and giving things back.

Among other things, they open sourced the Ceres library, which the imaging pipeline relies on.

> Many people don't realize why Google maps are so much better than anything out there.

Absolutely not true. I don't use Google Maps in Czech Republic at all as there is a solid local map provider[1] - (they offer whole world through OSM, so I use that on phone as well[2], but it's not that great). They lost some edge with Google going full-textured 3D few years back (actually the Czech map had it sooner, just not as useful). But other than that much cleaner rendering, equally good aerial or street view, better routing, POIs, richer layers ...

(edit: and two huge UX advantages over GM: no stupid random rotation - North is UP, and a very quick and precise zoom by holding control)

Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised if there were similar stories in other countries.

1. https://en.mapy.cz/

2. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=cz.seznam.mapy or recently released as https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=cz.seznam.wind... (haven't tried it)

To me it seems to have a much less detailed view compared to google maps in all the places that I quickly tried. How can you proclaim that google maps is not much better than everything out there bringing this low detailed map as an example?

What do you mean less detailed? Any examples?

I checked both London and a small city in Italy and there is simply no comparison looking at the building details.

I explicitly said it's for one specific country...

Then it's true that google maps is much better. I don't really care about having only one country better when all the rest of the planet is less detailed...

It's used mostly in and for Czechia. Why would someone in Czechia care about the rest of the globe when he'll mostly use it to find stuff in Czechia?

I'd guess that 80% of my Google Maps use is within one country, and that 99% is within three countries. I'd definitely download separate maps for each country to get better directions and maps.

That's some really neat rendering, I can't remember seeing a better representation of the OSM data.

Exactly, especially public transport in Prague is so much better looking in mapy.cz I almost stopped using google maps.

The tourist layer (default on mobile) is great with all the data OSM has on bicycle paths.

Google has plenty of low revenue, unprofitable products, some of which are social charities like Google Scholar. I don't think Mayer deserves as much credit as a visionary as you are suggesting. It was more about empire building after a sudden demotion and not paying increasing licensing costs to a third party vendor for turn-by-turn data. But I agree that the end result is a mapping platform that is far ahead of anyone else thanks to Google's significant investment and resources.

I don't expect Google to pull its map app from iOS because it is a very valuable demographic to collect data from and target. Also, Apple already has a large hole on its balance sheet trying to catch up to Google in mapping. It started around the time they very publicly fired Forstall for the whole iOS 6 maps fiasco.

I agree with you but don't think that Google Scholar and Maps are even close to the same magnitude of product.

True, one of the X projects like Glass would be a better direct comparison in terms of resources and headcount. Google Scholar was just the first thing that popped into my mind when thinking of a Google product that is a social charity. Which, of course, is not the right way to think about Maps since the location data they collect is probably some of the most valuable data for their ad targeting.

Let me try to describe Scholar from a different angle: Google relies on a lot of experts in their respective fields in order to be successful. And they need to stay close to the state of the art and current research. Google scholar is just the kind of database that helps with that. It makes sense to build it for internal use. And given that Google is also good at data analysis, it makes sense to open it up to the public and learn from the usage data. For example: What are hot topics? Which papers are read often in the community? This data can give an extra level of insight into what is going on in the research communities.

It's interesting how Google's projects don't spell financial returns immediately but a few years hence, they are the dominant player in that field. Management deserves credit for nurturing these project but it has always been characteristic of Google to support ambitious ideas.

Google Maps was more ready than anyone else to ride the smartphone explosion. I guess they will also be more ready than everyone to cash on self-driving cars, Advanced AI, VR, and maybe youth-enhancing drugs too.

It's interesting how Google's projects don't spell financial returns immediately but a few years hence, they are the dominant player in that field

Hmmm, wasn't this Microsoft's business strategy too, until the regulators got involved?

The difference is that Google usually spearheads a field, whereas Microsoft does that when they are catching up with existing leaders. One technique advances state of the art, the other leverages a monopoly to gain commercial advantages.

"Regulators" only got involved with browsers, once. You can't use that as an excuse for all the subsequent blunders by MS management. Their big tech bet was tablets and PDAs and they still got pipped by Apple and Google, without any involvement by lawyers.

The difference is that Google usually spearheads a field, whereas Microsoft does that when they are catching up with existing leaders

In what way? Google didn't invent search, mail, banner ads... nor maps.

Google Maps was leaps and bounds better than anything in the mapping space at the time.

Google Mail was leaps and bounds better than anything in the webmail space at the time (more space, better spam filter, better UI, imap support...).

The pagerank intuition (and the technical way of achieving it, with clusters of cheap PCs) was original in search at the time, which is how they built their lead.

Ads they mostly got from the Doubleclick acquisition, but the intuition of serving more palatable text ads on a mass scale was original.

Android they acquired, but the intuition of keeping it opensource was original in embedded systems at the time.

Whereas MS Office was just another office suite. Xbox was just another console. Windows CE was a hacked-down Windows that struggled vs real mobile systems. .Net was a Java clone. Bing was a Google clone. IIS was a clone of existing webapp servers, with the only advantage being that it came preinstalled. SQLServer they acquired and made it slightly easier to use than competitors. After Windows, IE was probably the only major project where they innovated substantially, and they let it die.

I agree about Maps and Mail, but I disagree about your assesment of Microsoft only failing - they had quite a few misses, but you're discrediting their hits.

The XBox's innovation (according to developers) was in making game development easier (DirectX) - heck, it was called DirectX Box originally!.

.Net started as a Java clone, but outpaced it significantly (LINQ, Lambdas, Generics, extensions, anonymous types) mostly thanks to Anders Hejlsberg.

I agree they had their share of high-profile failures, Windows CE and all of Microsoft's mobile forays failed, the current Windows Mobile was starting to get good but they had to kill it.

Excel was better than anything that came before and was a category-killer, so not "just another office suite" (although they did use their monopoly to force it).

They did have some wins (Azure) and they still have their cash cows to fall on.

My friend, you must not have been around during the days we would print out directions from Mapquest before every trip. I remember when Google Maps was first announced, I sat there dragging the map around my screen and was amazed to see the tiles fill in. It was like nothing else at the time.

Wait. What are you talking about? This seems like a noteworthy story.

Not sure if there is. Google and MS have tons of cash to burn during the early life cycle of a new product. Thus they can iterate long and fast to get something the market wants. However, Microsoft got bashed for abusing one successful product (Windows) to eliminate competition for another (Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player). Google comes close to this with the behaviour of thier search engine which has been judged to give unfair boosts to other Google products.

This kind of anticompetitive behaviour would be news. A big bank account all by itself is not.

I find Google Maps a PITA to use since the last big revamp of its interface a couple of years ago. It became slow, unreliable (tiles never loading, UI element never loading, freezes) and unpractical (moving routes points became horrible, I started failing half of the time to drag the route, removing points also often causes extra points of interest or route points to be added: a nightmare).

It used to be very good with the previous user interface. Now I use my national map provider (when I do not need Streetview) or Openstreetmap (when I do not need aerial pictures or Streetview). And for routing, I may use some cycling map, or Google maps when I hope I won't have to move any point (starting and ending point specified by address, and no change of route).

The biggest loss with the Google maps redesign is that I am limited to 10 via points. If I am creating a route I frequently use far more than that to ensure that the route goes where I want it to go. The only thing that keeps me using Google maps is street view, which to me is 1000x more useful than building shapes (most of the roads I ride were last street viewed in 2008, so I wish more resources would be put into updating the images.)

I was just on a road trip through Spain, France, Italy and Slovenia. Google Maps was good enough for road navigation but not perfect, and some things I really would have expected to work did not: location of service stations on the highway comes to mind.

When searching for places in European cities large and small, Google is missing a ton of information and much of what it has is wrong. Opening times, for instance, or which thing is a bar or a restaurant or a bakery or a shop.

And we found the main party bar in three different (smallish) cities, totally unknown to Google. Thank God we're still social enough to ask the locals. :-)

My sense is that the map data that can be acquired programmatically is very good on Google, and anything requiring human input or verification is relatively weak, especially outside the USA.

This is presumably a big opportunity, long-term, since it's getting easier to have robots acquire data but anything high-touch seems uninteresting to AlphaGoo.

> My sense is that the map data that can be acquired programmatically is very good on Google, and anything requiring human input or verification is relatively weak, especially outside the USA.

Their Local Guides program in Maps is clearly a direct reaction to this, they even explicitly ask you to sign up with a message saying "we need help from a human". Once you're signed up you'll occasionally be asked a series of yes or no style questions about places you've visited, ranging from "Does this place have disabled access" to "Would you consider this a classy place". They also encourage you to do things like adding the opening hours of places they don't know about, or confirming that places are still in business.

> data that can be acquired programmatically is very good on Google, and anything requiring human input or verification is relatively weak

I think you've described Google as a whole with this one sentence. YouTube content classification. Web site content identification. Account abuse. Their porn filters. There are as many examples as there are Google data products.

> Many people don't realize why Google maps are so much better than anything out there.

Really have to chime in here to echo other comments - this statement is astounding. Given the resources that have been available to them, and the time they've spent on developing their platform and data, it's amazing how bad Google maps is compared to everything else.

Google Street View has unparalleled photographic data, and their very cool 3d extrusion of satellite data are nice features that still give them a competitive edge, but otherwise, on a purely cartographic level, Google Maps is really bad. Aside from Nokia and Apple, OSM's data through well-made interfaces by Maps.ME, Mapbox, Mapzen, etc. (intermediates necessitated by OSM's lack of financial resources for maintaining hosted tileservers) are all far better than Google's.

Do you have public transit in major countries, business listing, up to date open hours, reviews, walking directions, terrain view, My Maps feature, offline maps, offline directions, high quality coverage in dozens of countries, ability to search through other people’s list, street view, high detail satellite view and so on in said services?

A big part of my point above was that I was surprised that given those resources (many of which you've listed) the aggregate product is surprisingly poor.

Nobody else has the amount of data Google has, that could, with good design, potentially contribute to a good mapping experience.

Even so, to go through the things you list (ignoring Street View and satellite which I already mentioned above):

- Nokia maps has much better business listings, up to date opening hours and reviews than Google

- Maps.ME has far superior walking directions - their pathfinding algorithms can be a bit iffy, but OSM data has, in my experience, far better pedestrian- and walker-oriented trail data than Google. Particularly in remote areas, on mountains, etc. If by "terrain view", you mean the 3d visualisation, then Google's is quite pretty, but not as useful as more accurate and complete trails with graphed route altitudes.

- I'm not in the US, so Google's public transit data is likely better there, but here in Ireland it really isn't. This despite the fact all of our public transit services provide open real-time APIs. I'm not aware of any mapping service here that gets public transport integrate right, but OSM at least has better stop data than Google, which can be fed to RTPI APIs. Google's EU headquarters is here, which includes their Google Maps team...

- I find OSM coverage in is higher quality than Google in more than "dozens of countries".

I'm aware that all of the above is anecdotal, and much of it being from a non-US perspective, I guess some of this could just be an overly strong focus on the US on Google's part.

However, most of my issues with their Maps service is down to UX, performance (their web-based maps are particularly awful here), accessibility, and general consistency (e.g. their Android Street View app is really limiting and doesn't seem to integrate with anything else - the switching between it and the Android Maps app is unintuitive and generally makes very little sense in terms of actual use-cases). So I think this is somewhat independent of geographic focus.

I guess that's a case of YMMV, here in Uruguay Google wins on several of these.

OpenStreetMap wins on street numbers and other, because they're maintained by the municipal government.

Except for the "high quality coverage" (which previous poster in fact disputes), what has that to do with his argument "on a purely cartographic level" ?

3D extrusion of satellite data is nice in some cases - have a look at some of the more interesting remote islands. In most cases though it's significantly degraded the quality of the photo maps because the imagery is warped and has artifacts all over it, even in 2D.

If you want a real map, then Bing is the best solution in the UK because they partnered with the Ordnance Survey. OS maps are the civilian gold standard.

Are Bing partnered with OS or are they just using their data because it's open[0]?

[0] https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/business-and-government/pro...

The free map is 1:250k, but Bing Maps uses the 1:50k I think (it could be the 1:25k though, it's very detailed and has stuff like footpaths). It certainly looks better than the 1:250k.

Have a look at https://binged.it/2BFM0UA

And compare to the OS 1:25k example image: https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/business-and-government/pro...

In Russia, Yandex Maps [1] and 2GIS [2] are superior to Google Maps. Particularly the latter, since they actually employ humans to collect information about businesses so they always have accurate business hours and locations (it only works in select cities though).

[1] http://maps.yandex.ru [2] https://2gis.ru/moscow

What I don't realize is how Waze, owned by Google, has more roads (like 50% more, easily) and has house numbers compared to google maps, which has no house numbers and barely any roads, here in Lithuania.

This is their answer to how, though it doesn't answer the "why" question:

"The maps are completely separated. Waze and Google do share traffic info and reports.

Waze uses Google maps database for search (besides our own db ofcourse).

Sometimes Google maps data is imported into Waze. Streets, streetnames, parking lots.."


We are likely at the point where if Google withheld its map app from iOS, they would quickly find themselves on the wrong end of a DOJ lawsuit.

I am basically counting down the days until Google is the recipient of a major FTC enforcement action. It's going to happen in the next decade, and it will make Microsoft look like peanuts.

I did a small comparison of a few web services: https://imgur.com/a/4WEJ4

I grew annoyed at Google maps. It didn't show street names and numbers, and overall little detail, meaning that even if I (with GPS) easily found my location, it was hard to orient myself, and discover things around me. Things like "I know ABC is close to XYZ, I just need to find it by looking around XYZ" is really hard.

edit: and by small, I mean small. Nothing like the TFA, but grounded in a Swedish suburb (50k inhabitants), which is more meaningful to me. Also, I didn't have an apple-device at the time so no Apple maps included.

> its basically social charity in form of a free app.

Sorry but that's almost comically out-of-touch with today's reality. If you've been paying any attention you know exactly what Google takes from its users in return for this "social charity".

Honestly, even calling it a "social charity" is kind of offensive to actual social charities. They're not giving away this data, or opening it up, it's entirely Google's property and they're actively putting up multiple barriers to discourage people from using the service without giving up their privacy, location data and everything.

Imagine a corporation using a "social charity" as a lure like that.

If that's a "social charity" then so is Facebook's thing with the "free internet" in India.

That's a very good point. Many a times engineers have an excellent use case/rationale for investing in a piece of technology, but they are unable to convert it into the language that business would understand. Marissa and many others have mastered that art.

I prefer apple maps to google maps for most use cases.

Nokia's Here Maps is likewise superior.

I often heard that but always found Google's navigation better. Esp in European cities, where Google Maps will show street names in the map and Here won't (as of 6 months ago). I really wanted to get away from Google maps (to not use Google for everything) but found it to be clearly superior.

In my experience, it's actually (continental) Europe (A, D, HU, SI, CZ) that makes weaning off GM for PTP navigation rather easy...


Depends where you are. I’ve heard there are certain countries where Google Maps’ data isn’t actually very good.

For street data and navigation. Apple Maps in Australia is pretty much the same as Google Maps, so I mainly just use Apple Maps because I can command it via Siri while driving.

Google Maps has better search though if you don’t know the address, and the building outlines and street view are nice.

Google is better in some areas and is very good at sourcing, that's for sure. For those interested, the recent report[1] by Strategy Analytics might be relevant. It compares the strengths and weaknesses of Apple, Google, HERE and TomTom. And no, Google is not “much better than anything out there“

[1] https://www.strategyanalytics.com/strategy-analytics/news/st...

Google Maps tends to thrive where there are lots of people, at least in my region. I live in a medium-sized town with lots of new buildings under construction, and Google Maps seems frozen in time. I even registered as Local Guide and tried adding a new restaurant in May. Still waiting. There are inexistent shops, duplicated restaurants (when they changed name, the old remains but a new one has been added next to it), and mislabeled buildings. I quit trying to work for free for Google, they take too long to accept my changes.

Bing maps use Ordnance Survey for the UK, which is far better than Google maps. OpenStreetMap also has better maps than Google.

However, Google has comprehensive streetview and more up-to-date aerial photography.

It's not always better than everything out there; where I live in the greater Seattle area (in particular my current home), Google Maps doesn't have an accurate location-to-address mapping (it's not an apartment either) and the map visualization is not quite right either.

However, Bing and Apple maps get the correct location and have the right visualizations for the same area.

True. Also, Google has a great Places Search API. You can build so many more things with the Google maps libraries, unlike with other maps. For example just built https://stayintech.com/ with Google Maps API, after considering all the available options.

This is not accurate. MM was a late entrant and didn't like being there, had minimal impact.

>you can bet Apple is going to have a giant hole in their balance sheet.

I wouldn't be so dramatic. My roommate uses mostly Google products but she gets by with apple maps because her car only speaks that over Bluetooth. It's not the worst experience in the world.

No love for OpenStreetMaps here? In Germany it is often superior to everything out there. Especially due to the mappers/updaters motivation and nice gamification tools like StreetComplete or more professional tools like Vespucci.



You are right when it comes to streets and bicycle lanes and such. When talking about usability, display quality and search, not so much. I realize the value lies in the data, but for the casual map user there is a long way for OSM to go.

Besides, I don't see any reason why Google can't add OpenStreetMap as an additional data source in some or all areas (right in the spirit of the article). It will be interesting to see how the usage and development of OSM changes if that really happens.

> I don't see any reason why Google can't add OpenStreetMap as an additional data source in some or all areas (right in the spirit of the article).

The OSM licence requires that if you merge another database with it, you need to release the other database under the same licence as OSM.

I can't see Google doing that.

OSM has a GPL-like data license. You cannot combine it with another data source without releasing the combined data source.

If the OSM database is used as is and not used to modify any of their existing data, the existing data wouldn't have to be released. IANAL, but it seems to me that the data could be used in conjunction with existing data for the purposes of rendering tiles and not require releasing any other data sources.


ish. You can generate a map image of it, and combine that with other data and that only requires attribution

The display quality is equal or better: now that I'm used to OSM, I find it completely impossible to orient myself on Google Maps.

There is so much more information at a glance on OSM, whereas for Google you have to go to the highest zoom level to see all POIs. Smaller, local shops are often hidden by large chain brands that Google deems more important, and they don't show up until the shop's building almost covers your whole screen. Rather than showing the icon without a name, so you know what's there just not which specific brand, it just shows you nothing.

As for search... yeah that company owns search. I'm not surprised they excel at that one :)

Same in Netherlands. Google Maps has recently become worse and worse. Small pedestrian roads are missing, and the navigation is getting stupid. Google applies the one-way limitations for cars also on cycling routes.

To go with the comparison mentioned in the article though, Apple maps doesn’t even have an option to cycle at the moment. I never use it in London for just that reason. They’ve decided that it’s more important to add ride sharing as an option before cycling in what I can only assume is a product of their being in suburban America.

>> is a product of their being in suburban America.

Close, but imho is has more to do with liability, a fear common at all american companies. Car drivers are licensed. They can be expected to obey traffic laws. So when google sends them down the wrong way on a one-way road, nobody blames google. They blame the adult who listened to their phone rather than the signs. But bicyclists are not licensed. If google says that a road is open to cyclists when it isn't, and something bad happens, few will blame the 12yo unlicensed cyclist just following their phone's directions. This is why google, imho, seems to be limiting bicycle routes to those areas with the most clearly defined paths, preferably separate from roads.

And the one-way thing for bike routes is likely based on the widespread understanding that bicycles on roads must obey all the rules that cars do. Going the wrong way on a one-way road is illegal in many areas no matter what vehicle you use. This may never be enforced, but google's legal team probably isn't willing to depart from the letter of the law.

On my phone, Google's bike routing happily sends me down a 35 MPH, 4 lane highway, crossing under a rail bridge where there is no shoulder.

It also presents an alternate route, but the traffic environment here isn't such that the route under the viaduct makes any sense.

(this is in small town usa)

I cycle in a mid-cized American city that has had a "Bicycle Friendly America" Silver ranking for several years now, and the Google Maps bicycle directions have been extremely iffy since they were introduced. I just checked how Google Maps routes my normal cycle route home, and it's very close to good, but in fact is quite bad.

It routes me onto a dangerous arterial road rather than the pleasant multiuse park path that is directly adjacent to the arterial road (and which is my normal cycling route). The Google Maps recommendation here is quite bad and possibly dangerous. The alternate route goes on another heavily-trafficked road rather than the quiet surburban street a block away that is a designated cycle route marked with bicycle signs and sharrows (which was my previous cycling route).

"And the one-way thing for bike routes is likely based on the widespread understanding ..."

There are many examples of one-way roads with two-way bike lanes, ie San Francisco:


And the presence of those only adds to my point. Where bike lanes are not specifically states as being 2-way, the default for someone like google is to treat them according to the rules of the road they run alongside.

The point is that in the Netherlands there is a huge number of streets that are specifically signed as "one way, except for bicycles", it's a core feature of our urban infrastructure. Google treats them all as one way for everybody, in a country where over a quarter of all journeys is made by bicycle.

> They’ve decided that it’s more important to add ride sharing as an option before cycling in what I can only assume is a product of their being in suburban America.

Or that cycling doesn't offer referrals…

Maybe bike shares? I wish the cycle directions had an option if you have a bike or not and if not it will determine where the closest spots to get a bike share and go from there as opposed to walking/bus to the destination.

> Apple maps doesn’t even have

Well of course we were explicitly not talking about the other closed, US corporate-owned map datasets, but the open one.

Who cares if they have options for cycling or not.

But thanks for bringing the topic back to Apple, mr "iNerdier".

Cycling is a relatively new feature even on Google maps. I believe it appeared about three years ago?

While Apple is still playing catch-up, it appears to me that cycling, and all other features mentioned in the article, are exceptionally ameliorable to machine learning, and its advances over the last few years.

Apple being the only other company in the world with access to the wealth of position data on users' phones, and the financial muscle to purchase any satellite images they want to get their hands on, shouldn't have too much of a difficulty of replicating these.

I first used Google Maps for cycling over 7 years ago.

Ha, you got it exactly right, it was added in 2010: https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/03/biking-directions-ad...

It might have differed by region. I went on a bike trip from Denmark to Greece in 2010 and remember doing all sorts of GIS to get good mapping data.

I seem to remember discovering Google's bike directions, including the height profiles, a few months later and being slightly miffed that it wasn't available for my trip.

A lot easier said than done. Plus not even sure if Apple cares to catch up. But Google is also running so fast and now putting SDC on the road collecting more data it is hard to see Apple ever catching up.

Same here, I've been using Google Maps in Northern Europe (in many countries) and does get worse every quarter). Perhaps there is a massive focus on the US-side.

WAG: is Google preparing to be Amazon's drones mapping service that thy care so munch to even know each and every building/caravan is?

I offer a different point of view from southern europe: during the crisis, 2008-2015, investment on infrastructure was very little and we hardly ever added new roads, especially large projects.

Now that there’s some money floating around again for a couple years, mew bridges and joins and larger road works look more common everywhere.

From here it looks like that google mapping quality is more or less the same, but the rate of change of the urban landscape increased leaving a larger gap between actual and mapped.

(That is for maps alone, street view is extremely outdated across all Italy)

I don't think that's how Google approaches product development. I was wondering the same, i. e. "what are building shapes actually good for". But if you look at the article's screenshots, i think the obvious answer is: they're simply more fun to look at, and maybe add a certain sense of what a neighbourhood looks like.

If this were a feature for something like drone landing, it wouldn't show up in the public rendering of maps. Google has boatloads of mapping information they don't show, such as travel times, detailed scenic values, allowed turns etc. And building shapes alone are both too little for landing a drone (it doesn't show detailed vegetation or power lines), as well as too much (you only need flat/not flat to land, not the detailed roof shape of different sections of a building).

> I don't think that's how Google approaches product development. I was wondering the same, i. e. "what are building shapes actually good for". But if you look at the article's screenshots, i think the obvious answer is: they're simply more fun to look at, and maybe add a certain sense of what a neighbourhood looks like.

Insider perspective: I don't know why building shapes were added specifically, but you can honestly get away with basically justifying a project at Google with "because it would be cool".

There's a lot of reasons you can get away with it: Google has lots of internal tools and resources and data which makes it easy to do cool things, Google is pretty well off and can afford to not be particularly "lean", and Management can justify cool things because cool things are like basic science (as the article points out) and lets you build more cool things and because users like cool things ("magic moments").

So it's very possible that the reason building shapes were added were because someone realized it wouldn't take that much work to do using Google's existing data, machine learning & computer vision research, and computational infrastructure and thought it would be cool, they convinced someone in middle-management it would be cool and a half dozen people worked on it for a year or two.

[It could have also been a calculated, top-down decision and required hundreds of people working for a decade with laser focus; that happens too sometimes, I don't actually know.]

Building shapes are for AR occlusion.

I don't disagree that Maps lacks a lot of smarts. Sometimes I ponder back to years ago, thinking my TomTom then worked better already than Maps now. But just to be clear, a one way road is still a one way road if you're a bicyclist, unless exceptions are specifically indicated on the traffic signs, no?

Pretty much every one way street in The Netherlands looks like this: http://www.trueamsterdam.com/wp-content/uploads/uitgezonderd...

To find a one-way street that applies to cyclists would be an exception.

They're common on slightly older bike paths that go on both sides of a main road, for example on Gedempte Oude Gracht in Haarlem: https://goo.gl/maps/ockjefMmUqx.

It's actually super annoying, and I don't think I've seen a road done like this in last 2-3 years.

Edit: but yeah, that is _slightly different_.

At least in Munich, one way roads that don't allow bicycles bi-directional travel are the exception. But yes, all one way roads that allow bi-directional traffic for bicycles have a traffic sign that indicates this, and often road markings as well.

It's not too hard to suggest changes to the maps using their feedback option. I've done it around my town to fix some one-ways and lane options a few times now and they get added within a week or two usually.

How do you access this feedback option? Google maps has been showing my address in the incorrect place for the past few months and I have no idea how to let them know. All I've found is "add a missing place".

There should be a little "Send Feedback" link at the bottom right near the mileage/km scale. Same thing in the maps hamburger menu. You have to sign into a google account though.

Ahh yes, I see it. I'm seeing the edits I made in the past and they have not been applied, with no reason given. I tried to elaborate on the issue, hopefully this time they will fix this.

The navigation also constantly crashes, I can only use it two days a week because the other three days it freezes whilst loading directions.

Send in-app feedback about it.

It's probably caused by some third party app or rarely-tested phone model. They take in app feedback into account when deciding what to work on next.

Is it legal there to ride your bike the wrong way on a one way street?

It depends on the country and/or the city.

In France, it is legal:

* in all "30 km/h zones" (which are a bit different from a single street with a 30 km/h limit), unless specifically disallowed in a specific street;

* in all "'meeting' zones" (where the speed limit is 20 km/h and pedestrians have special rights);

* and of course anywhere where it is specifically allowed.

99% yes. Even worse, there are biking lanes on both sides so it is only a one way street for cars.

Incredible. I'm a big fan of google maps but the map of my neighborhood is much much clearer on openstreetmaps than on google maps.

Google Maps actually has the shape of the buildings in my neighborhood incorrect because earlier it was blocked by huge trees, shrouding the shape of the building.

It seems to really struggle with single storey extensions and garages in my area, even when they're nearly as large as the main house floorpan and the Google car drove right past them. I think there's probably human intelligence as well as higher resolution imagery in getting those cathedral and space needle details right...

And it doesn't have any buildings at all in my friends' neighbourhood, because it was fields when their aerial images were taken under construction when their StreetView cars passed through 4 or so years ago. OpenStreetMap has accurate buildings. Apple Maps doesn't, but you've got a complete street layout and can overlay its more recent aerial imagery to see the buildings. Google Maps has no buildings, no aerial imagery from the last seven or more years, gets the street layout wrong and mislabels some of the few streets it actually shows. It's fun taking a 3D drive through the first roads when they were still lined by bare earth and areas about to start construction, but I got lost using their map...

Any mapping service's "moat" depends more on whether it's remotely adequate for the areas an individual cares most about than its ability to superbly render famous features of priority US cities.

In larger cities, such as Chicago, the building shapes are part of the data the local government makes available to the public. All Google has to do is translate it into its format.

And if you don't like how OSM is showing something, you're free¹ to take the data and make your own map showing your own things.

[1] free to set up a rendering database that is

And if something's wrong you can fix it

Indeed. I have made several approved corrections to Google maps over the years. They are responsive.

OSM is not google though...

but yeah, google approves them occasionally as well

I have been using open street map in one of my projects and am considering dropping it.

I had the fun experience last week to discover that this was one of the cities in north Texas.


The "Boy's Bathroom Tascosa Drive In" Residents are hopefully not going to look at my app any time soon. I am now a bit concerned about the quality in the states as a whole.

So that was identified as vandalism in ~9 days and removed and the user has been banned from editing:



Of course as a practical matter the block only applies to an account rather a person, but it makes the point to the person that the vandalism isn't welcome.

I mostly mean to expand on how OSM deals with such things, not to argue whether or not that makes it suitable for your purposes.

It's not like Google is immune from this kind of thing:


OSM data is highly variable in quality. Features like building footprint geometries will be great in some areas and completely missing in others. This is not easily detectable, and when you pull open a google map, they often have those features.

When going to less developed regions, it's the reverse.

You don't even know if towns will be on the map with Google, but with OSM, there's always at least something.

You are spot on here, not sure why you got downvoted.

in some country they could import cadaster data. The licence, policy and quality of these differs from one country to another.

> No love for OpenStreetMaps here?

Last year, when SVP of Engineering at Google left for Uber, I suggested[1] here on HN that Uber getting into mapping (for exactly the reasons in the article) with OSM would be mutually beneficial (in the same way as outlined in another comment from today[2]). It didn't get a warm response. (IIRC, at first it was even downvoted into the gray.)

1. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13447070

2. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15968077

You are right. In Germany and Austria OpenStreetMaps and Microsoft Maps are superior over Google Maps. But this has entirely political reasons.

Back in the 80ies when we started working on these kind of mapping techniques Microsoft was the first to work on it (i.e. buy those companies, partner with institutes), and was the first to get the local government contracts for the flyover photos.

Google had only access to the US satellite data, with a much lower resolution, Microsoft had access to the yearly 2D government overflights and even to the local stereo camera 3d images. 4x a year on 1000m. Very good data. Paired with streetview-like cars photographing the facades this was the future. Google didn't invent this, Microsoft partners (also working for NASA) did this.

Some cities still only work together with Microsoft, they do have long contracts. So streetview is not public, 3d images are government only and 2d maps are behind.

OpenStreetMaps solved this problem with crowdsourcing. More accurate, but not scalable. Google solved it technically, Microsoft politically.

When I worked in city planning, I used to write such a 3d image software, which detects roofs, trees, cars, streets, and build an automatic 3d model out of it. These models were used to detect illegal buildings or enhancements, which brings in more taxes. They had no interest in making these maps public, only for certain architectural or city-planning contests.

Quite interesting insight. Thanks you for that.

Wow, thanks a lot for sharing. It looks wonderful.

One thing that I am wondering is: as much reluctant as I am in using Google services, I must admit that Google Map is unbeaten -- in my own experience -- in finding the quickest route in traffic. Is there any alternative service for this purpose?

They now owned by Google but I find Waze to consistently provide better and faster routing (by car) than Google Maps when I use them both on my Android phone.

I find Waze to be absolutely horrific at routing. Just this week, at the start of a route, it sent me into a wreck on a surface street it already knew was causing crawling speeds for over a mile. 13 minutes in traffic it should have avoided.

In the general sense, Wave greatly prefers higher average travel speeds over distance to the point of being comical. Going between my two most frequent destinations can be 34 miles on a bunch of super highways or 21 miles of surface street with a long stretch state highway that is mostly posted 55mph. The calculated ETAs are usually within 3 minutes of each other but Waze almost always wants me to travel the longer distance -- burning a bunch more gas and making the drive more stressful.

Then there's all the screwy stuff it does with side streets. Having to enter busy arterial roads from uncontrolled intersections is probably not saving me time and is certainly not making my travels safer or less stressful. Especially when it wants me to turn left.

Waze is a nice substitute for shuffling my Valentine One between vehicles.

I also like OSM a lot but it has serious flaws. For example searching for specific addresses or POIs is cumbersome.

Last time that I checked google maps was vastly superior in all the aspects.

I use it frequently. It's not. Especially regarding updating businesses, small roads (and road quality), paths, opening hours, closed roads&paths/construction sites, bike maps, everything regarding detailed information basically. I have been adding bus stop markers for blind people or types of pedestrian crossings, recycling containers, street light, to OSM with StreetComplete. There is so much more there. Next time, please elaborate on such blunt statements since I believe it may be worse somewhere but it's not generally.

Or, if OpenStreetMap is lacking in your local area, help out! OpenStreetMap thrives when local mappers are involved.

Compare this section of a Dutch city:

Google: https://www.google.nl/maps/@53.1983621,5.767509,16z?hl=nl

OpenStreetMap: https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=16/53.1986/5.7679

Apple: (I guess Apple maps can't be linked to on the web?)

It also helps a lot if your government can be persuaded to open up their geographical data. All the building outlines are right there on the map in the Netherlands, up to date to within weeks, because the Dutch OpenStreetMap volunteers work with government data that is permissively licensed and cleared for use with OpenStreetMap. In fact, mistakes in that data set are also picked up by the local OpenStreetMap mappers, and reported back to the government cadastral map. Everyone benefits.

FYI, you can link to Apple Maps [0]. The equivalent URL isn't really much different [1]. A bit unfortunate that there's no consensus on the URL params between providers, though.

Trying to open that link on macOS from either Firefox or Safari shows a modal asking if I want to open it with the Maps app. I'm not sure what happens on iOS, but I'd expect something similar.

IMO, the lack of web client for Apple Maps makes it the worst of the bunch. Vendor lock-in is a tragedy.

I've been trying to use OSM more over the last few months, but it's hard to compete with Google on their home turf. Although OSM started to become more appealing as Google began requiring you to enable all sorts of data tracking for many or its features to work. If you disable location tracking you run into all sorts of bugs.

[0] https://developer.apple.com/library/content/featuredarticles...

[1] http://maps.apple.com/?ll=53.1983621,5.767509

> IMO, the lack of web client for Apple Maps makes it the worst of the bunch. Vendor lock-in is a tragedy.

Yeah, on any other OS your [1] just redirects to Google Maps:


The map used in the posted article has been since filled buildings on OSM: http://www.openstreetmap.org/relation/126762#map=17/41.33998...

Notice that although it looks like Google doesn't have buildings in those links, they do. You just have to zoom in a bit for them to appear.

True. The outlines Google has are very inaccurate though (mostly just rough rectangles), and includes buildings razed years ago.

Absolutely not. I used osm all last year while travelling. The fact you can download offline an entire country worth of data beats the hell out of Google Maps' offline mode. Also the searching by category is brilliant.

I'd suggest to check outside the USA.

And even where the actual map data is superior, the "we know better what you want than yourself" approach to UI is infuriating: Hiding of map detail/information based on zoom level is LCD design - you have to zoom in ridiculously close to get most of the info you want, and even then you usually can't be sure that the POIs shown are complete. And don't get me started on "Oooh, you cleared this text field? Lets zoom/move around like crazy!1"

It heavily depends on the area/country/city.

Gmaps is only better in the POI information even much more now as they created this gamification of adding information with Local Guides that they push heavily.

Data for the US is still extremely sparse. Many US towns don't have addresses. But it is improving rapidly; mid-sized towns have been getting building outlines for a while. OSM Europe is far, far ahead of the US in what is mapped.

But OSM has some advantages over the others. You can do Simple Indoor Tagging of your building, say for accessibility reasons, and you can even modify it later.

I never heard of street complete before, thanks!

I love this thing. Every time you have to wait somewhere, you can do something good. :)

I absolutely love OSM, even though I usually use Google maps in my day to day. Mainly I strongly support the open licensing and how quickly and easy it is to contribute. I actually added ~500 house outlines and ~150 house addresses to my hometown in the past couple days - it gets really addicting!

I really hope that one day OSM will be able to better compete with Google maps. I feel like there is a serious lack of OSM mobile apps. The only one I know of (that is acceptable) is Maps.me, but I find it too cluttered compared to Google maps.

The fact that Germany banned Street View contributes to it being less useful there, and I theorize that it might indirectly contribute to less data in Germany.

Street View is so amazing, it's a huge game-changer from Google.

I didn't know that Street View was banned? Well, I noticed that there are probably no updates, but I always thought that Google quit taking photos because it caused so much trouble and negative publicity.

It's not strictly banned, Google just decided to abandon Germany and Austria because they required permission on a household-per-household basis.

They seem to be starting back.


Sure, but I can Google map small locations you have never heard of in Africa. it's freaking nuts!

Open street/hiking map is great for hiking trails but the lack of traffic info makes it much less useful for driving compared to google's offering.

I've seen lot of data on OpenStreetMaps that is:

A) Wrong/Outdated/Missing

B) Just plain Vandalism

What are you looking at? I've never encountered vandalism in nearly 10 years of heavy OSM usage (and some light editing).

Nothing but love. They are the ones doing it right.

Except from searching for addresses I find that OpenStreetMap offers a vastly better data source, nicer rendering and far superior routing capabilities.

This come from an admittedly from the PoV of not using a smartphone with google service, so it's either fully offline maps or online vector maps in the open source, well supported OsmAnd app or using the sluggish google maps website. Also I'm in Germany which has by far the best OSM map quality I have seen so far. And I almost exclusively cycle everywhere and every time I tried using google maps It sent me through some 2km cobblestone road 5 min after starting.

But I still find the Mapnik default rendering style very pleasant to look at.

As an additional benefit I can just fix OSM error on the fly, on my Phone, whether I'm online or offline and queue the update for later. There is really no competition here...

Edit: I forgot one of my main criticism of google maps. I mainly stopped using it in the webbrowser because it was getting sooooo slow. openstreetmap.org loads almost instantly.

A couple of things stand out for me from the article, one is that this sort of aerial image to detailed map was one of the things the US Government was doing with satellite images in the 70's, and with Google's compute resources if it this seems like the kind of 'side' use that would be encouraged. It is certainly a more useful use of compute resources than computing cryptohashes :-).

The second thing was that Google owns all of their data. When I was there Maps was pretty new, Google was digesting the acquisition of the Keyhole folks (who became Google Earth) and was complaining bitterly about how restrictive the usage rights were for the map data from a major mapping company. They kicked off a program to become independent of third parties for map data and to have the most accurate data in the world.

And if you turn the problem into an algorithm that can be parceled up between machines, you have way more of that than people. It's the one thing that the previous generation of computer companies didn't get, when computers are cheap having 50,000 of them isn't all that much different than having 5,000 especially if you can code up ways for them to route around damage. I think Maps is a good indication of what you can do when you think like that.

> And if you turn the problem into an algorithm that can be parceled up between machines, you have way more of that than people. It's the one thing that the previous generation of computer companies didn't get

And some open source data initiatives. Open Street Map, for all it's glory, is surprisingly anti-automation. There's a lot of stuff that could probably be done with programs that they refuse because it's too hard to peer review the massive resulting changesets. Which is unfortunate, because there's a huge potential for processing images from places like Planet to provide new data and annotations that we'll just straight up miss out on.

Detailed maps are certainly valuable. Getting those from satellites is impressive, and requires high-resolution imagery as well as lots of computing power.

We can get some satellite imagery for free from weather satellites, but it's nowhere near the resolution needed for street maps.


Sadly you are stuck buying it from a satellite company (expensive) or buying your own satellites (more expensive). My feeling is that 'Maps' is Google's insurance policy against the erosion of search advertising margin.

I could easily see Google making turn by turn or map detail a "small" $4.99/month service rather than having it be free.

It sure is nice having Justin O'Bierne writing publically about maps again. His old 41Latitude blog was phenomenal and then got blackholed when he went to work at Apple Maps. Then he left Apple and is back in the free world and doing phenomenal analysis of digital mapping like this article. I can't wait for him to finish his book.

It is ridiculously brilliantly detailed. I love the obsessiveness the has gone on to figure out the Google Maps changes.

It's wonderfully written too, easy to follow through his logic without having to re-read sections.

> he went to work at Apple Maps

??? He writes a lot of this article like he's trying to guess from press and outside observation what Apple is doing / planning. If he was JUST working there, wouldn't he know all this? Should his 'outside observations' be considered to be him fitting outside information to what he already knows?

I think he left Apple over a year and a half ago. But yeah, his observations about Apple Maps are particularly well informed. http://www.tested.com/tech/573368-brief-comparing-digital-ca...

Definitely the most detailed analysis about map readability and features selection over time and in different areas.

We might disagree on some points but his work is truly amazing and always interesting.

I agree with you over his previous blog and about his position at Apple Maps, great to see him doing what he does best.

My first thought reading the post was "Is this a book?" It might as well be.

What an incredible post. I just love this guys blog, I wonder how long it took to research all of this.

As a side note this gives me great confidence that Waymo will come out of the self driving car race in pole position.

Yes !

Each time justin writes a blog post, I feel like a cartographer for a couple of minutes.

I love the attention he puts to the evolution of mapping services.

The only better thing would be the same blog as a post mortem from Google where they discuss the reasoning, design and tech behind these changes.

Up to a point. At that point an autonomous system needs to be able to interpret and react to the physical world as it actually is at the moment as opposed to how it's supposed to be.

This is why efforts based on exhaustive mapping make me nervous. Things change, sometimes rapidly. The vehicle should be using its maps as a general guide, not as some kind of ground truth.

The vehicle should be using its maps as a general guide, not as some kind of ground truth.

Not to sound like a jerk, but I would be shocked if there were anyone working on this that was not pursuing things in this way. It just seems kind of obvious that you can't have some big hunk of metal rolling around, following some abstracted track from a map, without "looking" where it is going.

And yet we have Waymo building 2cm-resolution maps and not operating outside of mapped areas, and (more scarily) Tesla geotagging false positives where Autopilot misidentifies some roadside feature and panic brakes.

Are those approaches mutually incompatible? It seems to me that it would be easier to build a system which can drive fast when what it's seeing matches what it's expecting to see (most of the time), and which falls back to a much more conservative stance in the case of surprisal (i.e. expectation not matching observation).

If all the cars are always mapping and collecting data will maps ever be out of date?

Think of all the many times a software developer says "X will never happen."

Then think of what percentage of the time they're right.

Yes. Cast your mind to lightly-traveled rural roads. If you are driving one of the many unpaved roads in Arizona during flash flood season, and the last car through was a couple hours ago, will you bet your life that the road is still there?

But hey, that's not a realistic danger in the city, right? Well, look up the sinkhole named "Steve" that opened up in the middle of an Oakland, CA freeway.

Then there's Highway 1, which is known for landslides. Not to mention that little incident with the Bay Bridge back in '89...

By definition, any car that makes an update to a map has experienced an out of date map.

Cars obviously have sensors for real-time data capture. However, the question is how well they handle new signage/lights, road changes, construction, flooded lanes, etc. when those aren't in the database. It's fair to say that autonomous driving today is some point between "we run 100% off maps" and "we can handle things like a human could if we lost access to our maps." (And much closer to the former.)

Good point, the map is not the territory and the cars are engaging with the territory.

Another interesting thing to consider, should there be widespread use of autonomous vehicles is the absolutely massive deployment of digital sensors that would entail, and who would use this data and to what ends? It would basically be realtime Streetview.

There's a fairly steady stream of posts here about data/privacy/etc. It's easy to pillory companies for violating privacy rules in various ways or mishandling data. However, given that data can't be reliably anonymized and that a lot of things that happen in public have simply never been systematically recorded in the past, there are a lot of fundamental questions over what sorts of data should be recorded when they provide legitimate value to users.

As a hypothetical, what if autonomous driving is seen to depend on what many would see as invasive data collection and monitoring? Should it be permitted? That's a hypothetical, but I don't think there's an obvious answer to the question as posed.

I feel that in the long run the answer is going to be heavily biased towards automated driving - unautomated driving kills. Every year more than a million of people worldwide die for no good reason, just because we suck as drivers; currently automated driving isn't yet superior, but in the long run it will clearly be so.

I don't think that we'll ever justify that massive loss of privacy is more important than massive loss of life and health; especially if the bad consequences of loss of privacy is generally hypothetical and in the future; and the bad consequences of traffic accidents are obvious and immediate.

If it's the type of autonomous cars that are prototyped today, they are definitely going to be dependent on invasive data collection.

Does it get sent back to the mothership? How is it processed? Is it discarded? Who has access?

When data is the new oil, these questions answer themselves if there is not legislation to prevent it.

Such data would be hugely attractive for commercial interests.

Hedge-funds and the like, use aerial imagery to get data like the amount of cars in parking lots at shopping areas.

With a fleet of cars with 360 degree cameras driving around, not only could the number of people on the sidewalks be counted, but it would be technically possible to identify most of them.

One thing I really appreciate about Google Maps is how accurate the times are. There have been numerous times where google maps says is will take x minutes to get there and I think "Nah, I'll be able to get there faster than that." Nope, I've never had google maps be off by more than a minute or so. I think it must take into account not just road conditions and traffic, but also how much I am likely to go over the speed limit.

Very much agree, with only one caveat: unpaved roads.

Google Maps estimates are wildly off when parts of the drive are along unpaved roads in Australia. It assumes a ludicrously low speed of 30-40 km/h for such roads, when most cars are able to go 80+ km/h, depending on the road. I've beaten Google arrival estimates by more than 2 hours on some drives.

When planning drives involving unpaved sections, we usually ask Google for the estimates for the paved sections (which are generally accurate), then estimate the unpaved sections based on the distance and a guess at a reasonable speed for the road.

I've also noticed that Google is much better at estimating speeds along unpaved roads that have mobile signal coverage. It seems like it uses user-generated driving data for them to some extent, but not at all for the ones without coverage. This leads me to think that they accept real-time user data, but will not "queue" the gathered data on the app for uploading later, when mobile signal is available.

This seems like a strange decision, given that unpaved roads and lack of mobile coverage correlate by nature. I suppose it's probably a security-minded decision, to prevent malicious agents from easily uploading bad data. Or maybe a quirk of the way Waze data plays into this.

One (totally unverified, bu) hypothesis that I have is that they drastically underestimate speed on roads that are rarely used by cars but frequently used by farming vehicles; they're using user data to estimate the speeds, they can see that the 'usual' vehicle going there is driving 30 kph but they can't see that it's a tractor pulling a wagon of hay.

Interestingly enough i was really surprised when i used Gmaps in Thailand and Cambodia with the exact same issue of bad roads. It was usually accurate. However i think i always had cell signal so your assumption likely is right.

It's not just unpaved roads. I also find that "private" roads (inside gated communities) around me are often extremely far off in terms of speed limit. There are private roads around here with speed limits of 45+ MPH that Google seems to calculate as 15-25MPH. It really throws off the time estimates if you're coming from or going to one of those neighborhoods. And it's been like that for YEARS. If they were using user-generated data, I'd expect that it would eventually get better, but I've seen no evidence of it. Waze does a better job at this.

It also apparently sucks if one of those private roads you turn down happens to be a private driveway and you are a car thief.


I don't think the paving has as much to do with this as the smartphone traffic. I find drives on rural paved roads with no cell reception and low population are often overestimated by 30%. Maybe I drive too fast on these roads. I certainly appreciate Google keeping other drivers off these roads, however.

The crazy thing to me is that it's pretty decent at estimating even in dynamic traffic conditions. Consider US101 in the Bay area at rush hour - if you leave San Jose around 6pm, you'll drive straight into traffic, but by the time you get to SF it'll be significantly lighter. A lesser algorithm would give you a time prediction based on current traffic speeds at all points along your path, which would give you a wildly pessimistic estimate when you leave and only converge when you get close to your destination. But Maps has enough data to know that at that time of day traffic is trending better, and by how much.

I just figure they are using the average of other people who took the exact same trip last week when conditions were similar.

They are using people's locations in real time for traffic. >Traffic density is gathered via crowd sourcing from smartphone users using Google Maps on a mobile application in a route. In a nutshell, Google™ is analysing the GPS-determined locations transmitted by a large number of smartphone users. By calculating the speed of users along a length of road, Google™ is able to generate a Live Traffic Google Map™.


I think it is actually not a highly complex algo. They have enough data to simply look at people who took the exact same or almost the same trip at the same time of day. Mix that with a bit of user provided traffic data to make sure it is similar to the comparisons and viola.

It's a problem that seems really simple until you dig into it. Traffic usually changes, and that's hard to predict. In broad strokes it's a "simple problem" but that's true of so many things (from bridges to self-driving cars). The complexity is in handling all the subtleties and edge cases and tuning everything so that the results actually are accurate.

There's a lot of traffic engineering theory based on viscous fluid approximation though. They'd be idiots not to leverage that.

I find that the time estimates can vary a lot when driving long distances. I think that you get a lot more variability in travel time in the countryside though, depending on driver confidence and experience.

I usually manage to knock a 4.5 hour drive down to 4 hours or less.

Their acquisition of Waze really gave them the edge here. Waze has been getting better and better at predicting times. I find that in most situations it is rarely off by more than a minute or two.

I have the same opinion about their acquisition of Waze. But I think Waze itself as a GPS is quite frustrating. It tells me to take the worst local road, when Google Map takes me the better route (the exact route I would have taken anyway without the GPS). After tryig a few times I have given up on Waze completely. I feel Google is using Waze for getting additional usee data points.

I also found them to be crazy accurate for walking directions. I always think "well, I fancy myself a speedy native New Yorker amongst all that gawking tourist data Google must have, I can cut down this half hour walk by a few minutes at least". Almost always arrive right on their estimate.

Interesting, Ive had the opposite experience while driving back to NYC from other east coast cities. Google generally takes into account that traffic will increase as I approach NYC, but the initial estimate is always off by at least 1-2 hours.

I wish they introduced a "motorcycle" vehicle type. At least for cities, it makes a big difference in arrival time estimations.

Seems tougher to do estimation specifically for motorcyclists.

Some areas allow lane splitting, others don't. Some riders are on tourers that can't hop through traffic but can maintain highway speeds comfortably, others ride single-cylinder dual sport bikes that can't maintain 60 without taking a physical toll on the rider. And every rider has a slightly different risk tolerance, which translates to different behavior in traffic. I personally don't mind lane splitting between two semi trucks cruising abreast at highway speed, but I get anxious squeezing through cramped city traffic. And I slow down considerably anywhere a SMIDSY might happen, even if I have the right of way.

Also, it may be difficult for Google to identify who is riding a motorcycle from location data alone, which is what they would use to generate the motorcycle estimations. Not sure how they would do it...maybe using accelerometer/gyro data to identify inward leans during turns? The assumption being that cars will lean outwards, while bikes will lean inwards.

They did that recently in India - not sure if and when they'll roll it out to the rest of the world.

I sometimes got the impression they do but still present it as car. I've got highly unrealistic driving times of a car in Bangkok that were very close to my actual driving time on a scooter for example.

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