The Mobile Map App Part I: The Void

The landscape of OpenStreetMap-based mobile apps

In the beginning

I first heard about Maps.me a couple years after my initial edit to OpenStreetMap. I was a bit younger, staying in a hostel on the island of Tenerife, joining in the evening gossip around the kitchen with fellow rock climbers. Two of them agreed that Maps.me was much better than Google Maps for navigating the roads on Tenerife, and even better for finding trails and points of interest (POIs) for iconic climbing areas. I wasn’t terrible interested, suspecting it was just another ultra-specialized app like some for trails or skiing I had seen, but then I took a look and immediately realized it was based on OpenStreetMap.

Soon after, I attended a State of the Map conference as a newcomer, met respectable engineers behind Maps.me, and realized it was a viable alternative to Google Maps, with a somewhat underground, European-centered, and hobbyist feeling userbase. I somewhat dismissed its global importance even if fully embracing it as a personal tool. None of my friends back home in Montana (USA) knew of Maps.me, but as I traveled about I realized it was popular outside the USA for its possession of more local knowledge than that sourced by Google, despite all their efforts. Later I would explain to people that I actually helped build the map they used on Maps.me when I was explaining what OpenStreetMap is (instead of “the Wikipedia of maps”). However, I couldn’t directly demonstrate that I helped build it, because when I added a new road or business I realized it took two weeks or so to populate, and hence the editing wasn’t all that interesting to many people nor useful to me in the immediate term.

A growing affinity

I kept using Maps.me. Its very simple interface was something like a “Craigslist of maps”, and the offline capabilities by default—no map was accessible without downloading the region—made it ideal for hikes where I was out of mobile signal, or travels where I’d be switching SIM cards and running out of data (before I switched to Google Fi, which foreshadows something perhaps).

As I spent more and more of my personal time editing OpenStreetMap, but also found my professional life converging on it as well, I wondered: where does the rest of the world ever see my work? I still ask this question often to other mappers. We know there are various mobile apps that use OpenStreetMap: OsmAnd, Gaia GPS, Komoot, Magic Earth. There are others that don’t have the same category of functions, but what is unique about this group is that in most ways they mimic Google Maps: search, navigation, bookmarking places, and maybe even reviews.

Maps.me seemed to be the reigning queen of the mobile map apps, in the underground space at least. Outside of OSM, HERE Technologies has HereWeGo, which I tested once for navigation and didn’t enjoy, and whose map editor I’ve used and rather more enjoyed. Apple Maps and Bing Maps were their own thing sometime, not OSM based in deep history, as far as I am aware. The first iteration of Apple Maps was ugly enough, supposedly, to be mocked in the Silicon Valley TV show on HBO. After Gavin the Hooli magnate asks if a new product is Windows Vista bad, even Zune bad, his advisor responds: “I’m sorry Gavin. It’s Apple Maps bad.” And then Apple Maps turned to OSM data for their mobile app.

And why, oh why, does OSM even matter?

My OSM use in public can be somewhat conspicuous, as I stop to mark something on the mobile phone, or walk around with a 360 camera on a stick, or pick up a rental car and immediately attach multiple cameras to it with magnets. People around me continued to casually inquire about the meaning behind all the effort I spent contributing to OSM, much less the effort from various companies doing exciting machine learning work. Why did it matter? What map is this? Where can we see it?

It’s a bit easier to explain such an impact if you contribute to something like Linux, which you can explain has an important role deep under the surface of so many of our devices and systems, something that affects perhaps almost everyone on earth who is connected to the internet. But OpenStreetMap always left me asking: “Well, do you use Maps.me? Because its the data on that.” And sometimes I’d insert Apple Maps, or OsmAnd. But these are not very popular apps in the lives of most people I speak with, while also seem to be restricted to iOS and Android respectively. People are using Strava (Google Maps), Uber (Google Maps on the front end), or the beast Google Maps itself. There are mobile editors for OSM like Vespucci and GoMap!! and StreetComplete and Observe which are all commendable but are for an extreme niche of users who specifically contribute to the map.

I’m often at a loss of words. But then came Facebook and Instagram’s whole adoption of OSM. I first used the Instagram API years ago as a graduate student to predict the popularity of trails in the mountains outside Seattle based on image density and tags, and it was very revealing. Now that API is closed and shut. But in the Instagram app today we get glimpses of a map. In Facebook as well, most notable in my personal use under the Marketplace, where I hunt for used Nordic skis or a coffee table from time to time. There is no independent app with navigation and the opportunity to search, pan, and zoom freely, but OSM is there. And I can tell people that they’ve seen this map that us OSM contributors produce when they use Facebook apps. Many people find that acceptable, acknowledging our painstaking map editing is relevant. But really, so many of us still go on to pull up Google Maps later that day when searching for the nearest sewing shop, or directions to the lake, or calculating the distance from Phoenix to Salt Lake City.

Google Maps Rules

While I can rank something like Maps.me or OsmAnd as top OSM-based apps, it is Google Maps that truly sits on the throne. And this is not to speak about the quality of the data, how quickly it updates, the superiority of its street view in a ratio of quality to coverage. Google is slowly slipping on all these things. But the usership of Google Maps seems ubiquitous. I have no stats on Google Maps’ usership compared to OSM-based apps, and a quick search (on DuckDuckGo, which now uses Apple MapKit JS and some OSM) revealed little statistical material of use with light digging. I could look up total reviews and downloads on the app stores, but I know it’ll confirm what I’m positing: so many of us use Google Maps for daily activity, even those of us who contribute to OSM significantly, or know enough about maps to otherwise benefit from other apps.

In general, OpenStreetMap simply lacks a strong and competitive mobile map application that offers a complete alternative to Google Maps. Many of the contenders for queen are good, but they haven’t come close to deposing the queen. OsmAnd has taken first steps, but in my case remains difficult to use by default because it just doesn’t agree with my instincts, which Google Maps probably subconsciously formed in me. Gaia GPS is my favorite for hiking, hands-down, and I happily pay for an annual subscription to it. Magic Earth looks beautiful in terms of UI. There’s another, OnX, which I think OSM needs to learn from but I will save that for another day. Ands Maps.me has been really nice, but has taken a turn, maybe for the worse. More on that in Part 2 of this post.

Where are we today?

I worry myself every time I open Google Maps on my phone. I feel like a traitor. I write here about how it’s the pinnacle of mobile map apps, but only because we all use it, a self-reinforcing loop. While I spend multiple hours per week editing OSM lately, out of pure personal interest, I turn around and use Google Maps to navigate, or to find a review, or even look at a satellite image of a bicycle path. It’s simply too easy to do, and a difficult habit to break. I also use Google Fi for my mobile service, which has been stellar in years past for giving me continuous service despite frequent travel across international borders, and living part time in a handful of countries. It’s also too easy to use, and things like Google Meet (Hangouts) and Gmail also have similar effects on us, even if we know it’s not what we should be using (I’m always close to a wholesale move to Jitsi or ProtonMail, but never close enough).

While Google Fi wins me over because I’m a niche mobile phone user willing to pay slightly more for convenience of never switching SIM cards, Google Maps wins me over for the opposite reason: I often use maps the same way that everyone around me does, whether I am in the USA or Hungary or somewhere in between. Google Maps is made for the everyday person’s needs, not as a map, but as an app.

We are starting 2021 with an OpenStreetMap that is perhaps more widespread than ever. It is commonly hailed as critical infrastructure across apps used by major companies, and my belief is that this is more true on the back-end than on the front-end where consumers and citizens see the map. It may be that OpenStreetMap faces a visibility problem—both in people being aware that it exists, as well as aware that it’s an ingredient in their apps. What is certain, however, is that it fails to compete—not as a map or a database, but as a product.

The data quality is always improving, the local knowledge is stellar but varies, the editing tools are ever-improving, the community is growing in size as well as across countries and demographics. But the product of OpenStreetMap is poorly marketed, lacks developed user interfaces and experience, and remains in many ways a raw material—a database as we say—waiting to be refined. Some have tried to do this broadly (OsmAnd), some have found and lost momentum (Maps.me), and others have either used only pieces of OSM (Apple Maps) or focused on a niche (Gaia GPS) that doesn’t categorically compare to Google Maps.

Ask yourself today how many of your friends and family are fully familiar with an OpenStreetMap-based product versus Google Maps. Ask yourself how many strangers on the street are unknowingly using the map that you contribute to, rather than probably not using it at all. In the end, many of us as contributors to OSM—its data, software, community building, education, all aspects—are somewhat like artists whose work has not been displayed and forever sits dormant in a storage room, discussed at insider conferences, pubs, and coffee houses, but like the case of many famous artists may never be known until we are long gone.

Can an OSM-based mobile app change this and make OSM a truly every-day standalone service across devices, throughout all cultures, around the globe? To be determined.