Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Slow Evaporation of Google Maps’ Moat

Joe Morrison (via Om Malik):

It’s hard to knock Big G. They’re still the biggest and best—a Morgan Stanley analyst estimated that Google Maps generated almost $3B in advertising revenue in 2019 alone. But I suspect we’re at the tail end of the golden era for Google Maps. They appear, to me, to be acting from a place of fear and conservatism rather than innovation.


What gives Google Maps an edge over other experiences? Today, I would argue the three pillars of its comparative advantage are Places, Street View, and 3D data. But in a few years, I think it will mostly just be Places. And shortly thereafter, it may well wind up with no remaining edge beyond convenience and brand loyalty.

Morrison presents a compelling argument that there are now several viable competitors to Google Maps. But, like most things map-related, it is hard to argue that this is globally true. Nearly every competitor cited by Morrison is based in the U.S. — most often in California — with the exception of OpenStreetMap, which is decentralized but was founded in the U.K. My experience with maps from U.S.-based companies is that they are often unreliable elsewhere, even in major cities. That’s not an anti-American knock; it is simply the reality of trying to build geographically-sensitive products elsewhere.

For example, the Chinese company Tencent has comprehensive maps of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, but nowhere else. The Russian company Yandex says it has maps of most of the world. But a spot-check of a handful of cities is missing most of the roads in Calgary, Toronto, Portland, Memphis, Osaka, Hyderabad, and Addis Ababa — to name just a few.

I do not think that any single competitor can replace Google Maps worldwide. I do not think that should be the goal, however, especially if we think more in terms of protocols rather than platforms. I like the sound of a more universal maps protocol that makes possible localized tiles and place data, and the nuances that engenders.