Monday, January 27, 2014

The Google Maps API Rules the Waves

The Google Maps API team relaxing on their two year sabbatical

I was taken back by the reaction to my post on The Slow Death of the Google Maps API. That one post got twenty times as many hits as the second most popular post on Google Maps Mania last week.

I wasn't surprised that the post was popular in some quarters. After all, there is a pathological hatred of Google Maps in the military wing of the open mapping community. However I was surprised by the complete lack of disagreement with the post in the post's comments or in the discussions that followed on Twitter and Google+.

I was expecting many in the mapping community to defend the Google Maps API. After all it is still hugely popular and is still a brilliant mapping API. With no one defending the Google Maps API against my attack I guess I'll have to do so myself.

First off the headline of the post 'The Slow Death of the Google Maps API' was obvious click-bait, an attempt to lure in readers with a sensationalist post title. The Google Maps API still remains popular with many map developers and is obviously still very much alive.

Secondly, the main thrust of my argument was that the Google Maps API team has been completely inactive over the last two years. This is demonstrably untrue. Over the last few years Google has been busy developing the excellent Google Maps SDK for iOS and the Google Maps API v2 for Android.

It seems to me that Google see mobile platforms as the future of the web and the Google Maps API team therefore appear to be focusing their efforts in supporting mobile devices. It just so happens that this is an area that I'm not particularly interested in -but I expect Google know their business far better that I do.

Thirdly, despite the huge strides made by MapBox and LeafletJS, Google Maps still has some built in advantages over some of its newer competitors. Google's extensive Street View coverage offers map developers unique access to street level images in an ever growing number of countries around the world.

Google's satellite imagery also provides map imagery that is less developed in its newer competitors. However MapBox are making huge strides forward in providing aerial imagery and I'm sure that they will continue to improve in this area.

Google also obviously excels in search. The Google Places API provides map developers with unrivaled access to business locations and points of interest around the world. OpenStreetMaps Map Features provide developers with access to similar kinds of data however the Google Places API provides the most easy way for developers to simply plug-in a powerful search engine for businesses and points of interest into their maps.

My belief is that where MapBox and LeafletJS are overtaking the Google Maps API is in the area of control over map design and presentation. Mobile devices aside, I think that the big growth area in online mapping in the next few years will be in Map Storytelling. I hope that the kind of mapped narrative, demonstrated so wonderfully in The Guardian's In Flight – Interactive Map last week, will become more commonplace on the internet.

Maps are great tools in the visualization of data and I believe that developers will start incorporating these data visualizations more and more into powerful mapped narratives. Not simply using maps to explore data but using the data and mapping APIs to tell the stories behind that data.

For these kind of mapped narratives developers will want increasing control over the design of the underlying map features of a maps API. The Google Styled Maps feature is good but both MapBox and LeafletJS provide far greater control over the design features of the displayed map layers. This is one area where I believe Google needs to stop resting on its laurels.

There is one other possible reason why the Google Maps API team seem to have been so inactive. I've had my suspicions for a while that the lack of new features in the maps API may be because Google are busy working on the Google Maps API v4 (an API that ties in more tightly with the look and feel of the new look Google Maps). If that is true we might well have to wait for this year's Google I/O before we hear of any new developments in the Google Maps API.

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