The Map Wars Heat Up: Google Announces a Revised Plan for Its API

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The company lowers prices for big outlets' access to its iconic view of the world.

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Padmapper

For seven years, Google has been hosting a Maps API that web developers have been using to build unique maps and visualizations based on Google's huge store of data. Awesome journalistic efforts like chicagocrime.org and awesome services like padmapper.com have arisen from the availability of that API, building on its rich architecture and finding new ways to make maps useful. The API was essentially a public service, but public service with a nice fringe benefit: By opening itself up to developers' creativity, Google helped to make its particular map -- its muted shades of blues and greens -- into our default vision of the world.

But Google, last year, incited some anger -- or at least some anxiety -- among the developers who rely on the Map API. The company introduced limits to the API itself, and announced a new premium (read: charged-for) service directed at its highest-volume users. The changes were explicitly focused on the heaviest employers of the maps API -- not the at-home hobbyists so much as the large news organizations of the world. Those power users were a small fraction of all the developers who used the API. (And non-profit organizations, even the big ones, were exempt from any charges.)

Still, though, the announcement created an almost instant backlash. Though most users recognize Google's desire to monetize its assets in ways that don't involve advertising, free-to-fee is always going to be a hard sell. Google's decision looked like great news for Apple, which had been developing its own maps infrastructure -- not to mention for OpenStreetMap and its Creative Commons license.

Today, though, just in time for the next Google I/O conference, Google is announcing a revised plan for its Maps API. The company will still charge for its services, but will now feature lower prices for power users -- and simplified limits for all. The company has also made a new point of clarifying how small the affected percentage of API users actually is under the new guidelines. "We're beginning to monitor Maps API usage starting today," notes Google Maps' Thor Mitchell, "and, based on current usage, fees will only apply to the top 0.35% of sites regularly exceeding the published limits of 25,000 map loads every day for 90 consecutive days."

As a Google spokesperson explained to me in more detail: "There are hundreds of thousands of active Maps API sites, and, overall, since we announced the usage limits last year, we've seen both traffic and the number of sites using the API continue to grow." But the sell is about more than just the maps, the spokesperson points out. "The Maps API offers much more to developers over and above basic mapping data, including for example: global satellite imagery coverage, 45-degree imagery, Street View, forward and reverse geocoding, directions, distance matrices, elevation profiles, real-time traffic, support for 40 languages, and plenty more."

So, from Google's perspective, if they ask you to pay, you get what you pay for. While we'll see whether users agree, today's news means that the map wars -- especially the big one, the one being waged between Google and Apple for visualization domination -- are getting even more interesting. Earlier this month, Cupertino declared its own entry into the mobile-maps game, announcing that, as of the fall, its phones and their operating systems will replace Google's maps with the company's own map service. That was a big shot fired; Google's stepping back its map fees may be one small way of firing back.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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