OpenStreetMap: The Next Wave Of Commoditization For Startups?

from the why-use-anything-else? dept

One of the striking features of some of the most successful startups over the last ten years ? companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter ? is that their infrastructure is based almost entirely around open source. Of course, that shouldn’t really be surprising: open source allows people to get prototypes up and running for the price of a PC, which is great for trying out ideas with live code. And yet despite these zero-cost origins, open source software scales up to supercomputing levels – the perfect solution for startups that hope to grow.

Today, no startup would consider doing it any other way, which means that the initial competitive advantage of taking the open source route has largely vanished. So the question for entrepreneurs looking to ride the next wave becomes: what’s next for commoditization? This fascinating post by Ed Freyfogle on the blog of the property search engine Nestoria suggests it might be swapping out proprietary mapping services for those based on the collaborative open data project OpenStreetMap (OSM):

this week we went live with a significant change to our service – in most countries we’ve moved away from Google maps and are now relying exclusively on OpenStreetMap maps served by MapQuest.

Freyfogle then goes on to explain the four key reasons why Nestoria decided to make that move:

1. The maps are equal or better

in many places of the world, particularly the European countries we were focused on, OSM maps are of equal or better quality than any other widely available mapping service.

That mirrors earlier moves to open source, which matches closed-source software is most areas, and bests it in many ? Web servers, for example. It’s a reflection of the quality of OSM that Nestoria did not have to compromise on quality in order to make the move.

2. It’s another visible way for us to support open data

Our service does nothing more (and nothing less!) than aggregate data from many different sources and present it in an easy to use format. We benefit greatly from open data, and as such we want to do our part (within the limited resources of a start-up) to help the open data movement.

Again, this is very similar to the attitude of companies that use open source. Google, Facebook and Twitter, among others, have all released significant quantities of their home-grown code as open source, recognizing that the stronger the overall ecosystem, the better it is for them too.

3. Google introduced charging for map usage

Earlier this year Google announced that they would begin introducing limits to the use of Google maps by commercial websites.

This basically meant that Nestoria would have to start paying for something that it had until then been able to use for free. That obviously helped concentrate people’s minds, and doubtless encouraged them to take a look at the practicalities of moving to services based on OpenStreetMap’s data.

4. The tools are ready.

Despite all of this, we would not have been technically able to make the switch unless there was a solid set of tools and services around OSM that made the switch possible.

A crucially important issue. Even if all the others had been present, without the tools ? and the emerging ecosystem they imply ? the move from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap would have been hard, if not impossible, for most companies. It’s the availability of these tools ? and the incredible richness of the underlying OpenStreetMap data, of course – that makes it likely that others will be able to follow Nestoria’s move here, adopting and adapting OpenStreetMap just as people adopted and adapted open source a decade ago, with the results we see today.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+

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Companies: google, mapquest, nestoria

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Comments on “OpenStreetMap: The Next Wave Of Commoditization For Startups?”

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John Doe says:

I didn't know there was an open map

I am glad that there is an open map. My brother and I were contemplating a new website/service that needs maps but then we heard Google was going to start charging for use of their maps. That is fine, it is their mapping software to do with what they want, but our service would never fly if we had to pay. Now maybe we can go ahead with it.

David Gerard (profile) says:

OSM = Wikipedia

The open-sourcing of content was presaged by Wikipedia. Wikis were invented a few years before, but Wikipedia and usable free content licences (even the awful GFDL) were what really got it going.

I’ve long thought OSM as something that would have fit Wikimedia’s portfolio wonderfully – it’s a marvellous example of a project really doing well with the Wikipedia model, without being a linked entity.

I remember a London Dorkbot presentation in 2004 on OSM – a friend who was working for Multimap pooh-poohed the idea that OSM could ever achieve a usable-quality map. I had been involved in Wikipedia for a few months at that time and
considered this really obviously wrong, having seen what a few people just chucking in what they knew could achieve even at that stage …

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