The Beginning of the Map Revolution

Written by Richard Badley on 20th June 2012

(Last updated 29th August 2023)

Look at any contact page on a web site and you'll usually find a standard Google Map sitting there with a nice red pin in it. The Google Map API has long been the standard mapping option for most developers, a few lines of javascript and you've got a nice draggable map that's easy to use. The only drawback? It looks like a Google Map, the same as everyone else's Google Map. Try and add a bit of bespoke functionality or design flair and it suddenly becomes very limited. With their iOS 6 announcement, Apple have made a bold move to ditch Google Maps for opensource and customisable options. It marks a serious change in how maps will look on mobile, are web sites destined to follow?

Flash is Dead, Long Live Google Maps

In the past, if a client wanted to plot their offices on a fancy map with their corporate colours and customized markers they probably would have built it in Flash. A perfect solution, until the company wanted to add a new office to the map and it had to be redrawn, reprogrammed and reexported.

The Google Map API, now in version 3, offers some options to differentiate maps from the standard Google look and feel. This can be as simple as adding rollovers to the markers but clients increasingly ask us for much more specific solutions, which can be achieved - with a lot of developer elbow grease.

Breaking the Google Map Mould

The International Health Partnership (IHP) required a map highlighting the countries where its partners are based. We decided to achieve this using a KML layer (KML is a set of co-ordinates to draw shapes – in this case country outlines - on a map) overlaying the standard Google Map, and also use some of Google's new API options to manipulate the map's colours and the information displayed.

As simple as this sounds, it quickly became a very involved task. Google's KML functionality is limited and we opted to use the GeoXML3 plug-in to achieve the rollover effect and to link to other pages from the map. We also found that using very detailed KML data was a big hit on load times so country outlines had to be less refined. Changing colours on the Google Map also proved tricky thanks to Google's eccentric syntax when it comes to using colour codes. Luckily, the Google Maps Colorizr saved us some headaches.

But everything came together to produce a fully customized map on the IHP Partners page that will update whenever a new country is added in the TYPO3 back-end.

While it is possible to wrangle Google Maps to do a developer's bidding, it's worth noting Google's pricing structure for its maps. They're free to use for up to 25,000 maps loads per day, but this drops down to just 2,500 free map loads when using styled maps as in our solution above. So sites with heavy traffic are likely to be paying for the pleasure of making the maps look like their own - $4 per 1,000 maps. That added to the development cost might see clients following Apple's lead.

Plotting Your Own Course

Apple's move is likely to cause a domino effect with companies realising that Google isn't the only mapping solution out there, and that they can take control of how their maps look and what they do. Apple is using data courtesy of TomTom but also from Open Street Map, it's free and generated by dedicated contributors all over the world simply using the GPS functionality of their phones. There are plenty of solutions out there to take such data and create custom map tiles – such as Map Box whose costs work out much less than Google for high-traffic sites for completely bespoke maps. Foursquare have already gone down this route.

The real test will come when iOS 6 is released and people start using the maps in everyday situations. Google have spent years – and billions of dollars - collecting their map data so Apple's experience will have to match it to prevent users immediately downloading Google's inevitable map app alternative. But Google's grip on maps has been shaken. Yes, contact pages will no doubt still have the standard Google Map but clients wanting to host maps that represent their brand will be getting plenty of other options.

Further Reading - Latest Trends 2012: Mobile Devices in the Developed World

UPDATE: Google have recently announced a cut in their map charges.  Styled maps now have the same usage cap as the default map (25,000 loads) while 1,000 extra map loads is now only $.50 rather than $4.  A clear move to stop customers defecting, but is it enough?

by Richard Badley