Small businesses are getting sick of Google charging big sums for access to its popular Maps product. If you just like to use Google Maps to find out how to get to the closest steakhouse, you don't have to pay to use the product. But your local steakhouse probably embeds a map on their website, and if it they have a popular website, they'll have to pay. Location data evangelist James Fee told The New York Times that the pay-to-play set-up, which kicked in last October, "will touch 30 or 40 percent of people who really depend on maps for their business. It could cost [business owners] tens of thousands of dollars a month." ComScore numbers show that Google Maps accounted for 71 percent of all online map usage in the month of February. The number two site, AOL's MapQuest, has less than half of that user base.
While less well known, there are alternatives, with some companies depending on users not only to look at the maps but also to help draw and maintain them. Here are three ways to get around without Google Maps.
This Israeli startup builds maps geared towards drivers. Waze is part interactive map, part Twitter-like stream, offering up open-source maps for the entire world that depend on its 45,000 map editors to draw the maps and 5,000 "regional managers" to make sure they're correct. The 14 million drivers that use Waze around the world can add updates anytime, and they'll flow through a stream of alerts that includes everything from traffic jams to police sightings. While the maps do work on the Web, the real utility is in the mobile apps, and Waze offers an app for almost any platform including iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone.
OpenStreetMap just won a huge amount of support from Foursquare, which quit Google Maps to switch to this open source solution, it said, in order to save a bunch of money. Apple is also using OpenStreetMap to power the location data services for the new iPhoto software for iPhone and iPad. OpenStreetMap offers about the same amount of functionality as Google Maps and uses a system called "GPS Traces" to keep the maps updated. This essentially means that if you're willing to share, OpenStreetMap will follow your GPS signal to draw new roads. Anybody is free to help draw and edit the maps -- creativity encouraged.
As much as we love to support startups, we have to hand it to Microsoft for their still up-and-comping Bing Maps product. It's roughly the same as Google Maps but just works better for certain tasks. Let's say you're going to New York, want to do some shopping but don't know where the good shopping districts are. With two clicks Bing will not only points you to the right neighborhood but provides an aerial view of which store is which, just like your local shopping mall directory. These kinds of features might not be free forever, but for now, they're useful.