The Mobile Map App Part II: Pivoting and Flopping
How Maps.me was almost a gamechanger, but risks irrelevance
Recaps and rumors
After writing part one of this series, it is time for a recap. To put it in a few phrases: Google Maps is the best mobile application for maps that exists by any measure; many of us who are avid contributors to OpenStreetMap (and probably those who personally contribute to and professional build HERE Maps’ HereWeGo, or Apple Maps, and others) are regular users of Google Maps by default; the reason Google Maps is the best is not because of the map data quality but simply because of widespread adoption; OpenStreetMap does not compete with this via any existing mobile app in any real way such as having a real share of the mobile map user market (whether the community wants to compete or just small companies want to compete using OSM data).
This entire bout of thinking was brought on by my own behavior, where I regularly make a mental note of the menacing guilt that comes along each time I open Google Maps on my mobile phone for any simple need. This is despite that fact that my current residence is located at the end of about 330 meters of unpaved road and driveway that has no existence on Google Maps. Navigation directs me to a plot in the middle of US Highway 93 then gives a dashed arc indicating I need to kindly hop through the woods onto the property.
OpenStreetMap becomes better data simply because I can fix that (it already exists as a road but needs extra cleanup), and because I can add all the places I regularly navigate to, as well as new ones as I come across them. But the data is not the problem. The problem is that every mobile app available is just not as a good from a product perspective. The interface, the aesthetic, the functionality, the general experience, are always inferior. This is not a critique of OSM itself, but of the mediums through which it reaches mobile users. It is also an extremely difficult feat to make a great OSM-based app for general use (as opposed to very specific uses like hiking) because there is such a clear market leader in Google Maps.
As I claimed in part one, however, there was a decent contender: Maps.me. It had its drawbacks, but those aside, it also seems to have lost its momentum. I don’t know what really happened with any certainty, but in this post I’ll try and recount rumors, whispers, legends, and probably some misinterpretations or even complete myths, all in effort to explore why Maps.me may never be the contender we need.
The Tale of Maps.me
Some light background: Maps.me was initially released in 2011. It was founded by Yury Melnichek (Юрый Мельнічак) of Belarus, perhaps with co-founders who were also Belarusian, from what I can tell. It was registered as a company in Switzerland, however. The initial project was a mobile app with OpenStreetMap data as a basemap, which allowed some submission of edits to OSM. It required the user to download data for any local area, for example zooming into my town required downloading all of the state of Montana, while in other places with denser data I may be prompted to download just an entire city. This data then also worked offline, including allowing offline search and routing. One of my favorite people in the OSM community also worked there, Ilya Zverev, who I didn’t ask for details on this because I want to write this as a total outsider who is not in the know.
Recent chatter across Telegram groups, Twitter threads, and newsletters gave me bits and pieces of a dramatic tale: the rise and fall of Maps.me. I haven’t looked at the app in weeks, having been rather sedentary toward the end of 2020, but it was clear to me something changed.
A few months ago, I saw that Maps.me had been purchased by a company I didn’t recognize. Some quick searching showed me it was certainly confusing: it seems the Russian Mail.Ru had previously purchased the app, which I didn’t realize, and sold it to a Swiss-registered company that seemed to have a Korean name, that may be also Russian owned. I am not sure any of that means anything, except to me, as a sometimes avid OSM community member, it means that I have no idea who owns this app and what they want to achieve with it. And I suspect they aren’t very intent on filling the gap I mentioned above: the need for an OpenStreetMap-based mobile app that has potential to be truly relevant in daily life of all people who use Google Maps now but don’t need to be trapped on Google. I say it’s a need because I think it’s too fragile for a supermajority of the world’s mobile map app users to be dependent on a single source of geographic truth that responds variably at best to community contributions.
I started digging deeper, and here I will summarize the story of what happened, though I can’t claim it’s the whole truth or completely accurate—just a compilation of rumors and tales.
It Starts on Twitter
Twitter is a great place to find out what’s happening before any formal publication picks it up, and I found a Tweet that was blatantly, concisely critical of Maps.me’s 2.0 update, which I also didn’t know had emerged. The official response was well stated, as I do know what it’s like to work on a map product and get hate mail, then still want to respond and try to solicit actionable feedback. Always a nice touch to offer an Amazon voucher for feedback, too—I’ve read product and user research material that recommends this as a goodwill token for users’ time. But more intriguing is the phrase “massively enhanced experience”, alongside, “that old version”, yes… that old thing. The new owners have plans, it seems.
That same day, I saw some chatter on Telegram continuing about Maps.me, but it was like joining a conversation halfway through—despite all being written there in front of me, I was missing some context. A link to a new channel was made, inviting anyone who was interested in following the developments of Maps.me called “Maps.me Original Project Updates”. In this channel, an article was posted which really summarized what I’m trying to summarize here. So I’ll soon get to the completely short version adapted from that author, Ondřej Sojka. But first, more backstory.
Acquisition after acquisition
After being bought by Mail.Ru in 2014, as far as I can tell, a major change in Maps.me is that further monetization was sought, through what Wikipedia describes as “unobtrusive ads.” A press release from Mail.Ru tells more, citing a change that Maps.me Pro was now available for free (apparently is was $4.99 previously). “Unlike Google Maps, whose offline maps provide at best a limited level of detail, MAPS.ME's offline functionality is fast, seamless, and comprehensive,” said the press release. Interesting statement, claiming that the “limited level of detail” of Google Maps is not countered by high detail of OSM, but instead by the Maps.me product itself and offline functionality. The press release from 2014 also claims over 7 million install of Maps.me since inception, and quotes the CEO of Mail.Ru: “We think that making the MAPS.ME application free and available to everyone will be a critical step towards the development of a global, universally accurate mapping system.” Free like Google Maps, but funded how?
The release then elaborates that the acquisition was intended to bolster a “communitainment” campaign of communications plus entertainment, consisting of Mail.Ru’s leading web mail and browser products, plus something called My.com with a vision “to build an integrated communication and entertainment platform … beginning with a family of mobile apps and games, and most recently, expanding to PC games bringing immersive, massively multiplayer online experiences to the masses”. Their website, which still showcases the Maps.me logo, is not terribly compelling. Another article mentioned that Maps.me would become open source as a result of the acquisition by Mail.Ru.
Daegu Limited bought Maps.me in late 2020 for about $20 million USD, though the quoted price was originally in rubles. A press release claims that the app had 140 million installs and 10 million monthly active users at this time. The release also makes some more interesting statements: Daegu is part of the Parity.com group; Mail.Ru sold in order to focus on other core things, which international travel is not included within (it was 2020 after all); the Mail.Ru Group-Sberbank joint plaform includes delivery and rideshare services like Russian Citymobil who appear to have map interests as well; Parity Group is headquartered in Zug, Switzerland. Another article says “Parity.com Group is an instant global settlement system which helps individuals and corporates around the world store money in AAA safety and transfer it in real-time.”
Maps.me is gone?
This is where Sojka’s article comes back to relevance. Sojka describes Daegu Limited as a South Korean payments company (which isn’t clear, it appears it is registered in Cyprus). He clearly states his personal mission to bring it back, which appears to be centered on taking action on the open source repository. That might be related to this fork.
But why such a reaction, considering Maps.me has been sold before? Why italicize payments company? Sojka titles one section of his article “They made another Google Maps.” He also says that many details have been removed from the basemap itself, and that the ability to contribute back to OSM has disappeared into thin air. Finally, he points out the new “wallets tab” and states: “Clearly, a map that highlights businesses makes more money than a map that is useful.”
There are many important directions we can go with this information. In fact, in part three of this series we’ll look into much of this: whether being like Google Maps is bad and why yes/no; what makes a map useful; why highlighting businesses is good/bad; why monetization can make as well as break an app. But in this case, Sojka’s premise is that these features are negative developments.
The question is where the plan from the current Maps.me team (or at least their social media manager) will really take this app. My critique is that it failed to compete with Google Maps as a product, despite the press release numbers showing 133 million new installs since the 7 million in 2014, pretty fantastic growth. But Sojka’s critique is that the app has become a Google Maps in that it offers map services but only as a way to get users to spend money. I still contend that Maps.me is not and will not be as good as Google Maps in the sense of a mobile app interface, and we all know the data quality—POIs, routing, search, and so on—is another discussion if comparing to Google Maps, hard to sum up in a sentence.
Testimonials and anecdotes
The Hacker News comments on Sojka’s article also have some good gems explaining what’s at stake, and what happened in the past. A succinct testimonial here:
…it was fast, simple, offline and had no tracking. Mail.ru then decided for a different revenue stream, killed the pay option and added things I don't want, like booking.com ads and travel guides and other things…
And a more lengthy one here:
Simple, non social bookmarks. As in: place a bookmark so you don't get lost while hiking, or when you find a nice spot you want to come back to later. Yep, a utility feature that doesn't somehow map to some stoopid business OKR in advertising. I am sure this is possible with Google maps or Apple maps somehow, but only after you've created an account, logged in, and made sure you have the equivalent of a South Korean inner city internet connection.
Also, easily downloadable maps that just stay on your phone. I am hiking, I don't have internet and need the map on my phone. I know Google Maps allows you to do that but it is tedious unlike maps.me, which is instant.
Some dashed hopes:
I haven’t used maps.me much, but generally it’s been a good experience. Other than being told multiple times to make a right turn to keep going straight on a highway, it’s been nice having directions and search that is entirely client-side and blazing fast.
Using it has made me want to contribute to OSM to improve the quality. To hear that it’s changing owners and becoming more of a product is unfortunate.
Google Translate and me
Google Translate has been key to this investigation of mine, particularly because I can’t do much more than read subway station names in Cyrillic script. Translation as a whole is very key to the OpenStreetMap community, and often done with open source tools, or by the valiant humans of our community who translate things like editors, plugins, and the weekly newsletter. Thanks to that newsletter, I happen to believe there is always fascinating material coming out of the OSM communities who speak Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian, and I often Google Translate blog posts and articles from Shtosm and Habr, among other sources. So now I use Google Translate in addition to GMail, Google Maps, and Google Fi, and more. My guilt is cataclysmic.
And so my final bit of gossip makes its debut: a great analysis and reflection by Ilya Zvervev, who I mentioned earlier that I did not speak with directly about this whole debacle. Ilya wrote an article titled “Death of MAPS.ME?” with a nice tombstone image on the headline which I’ve borrowed for emphasis.
Ilya’s summary is very valuable: he knows Maps.me better than most, as a user and a former insider/developer. He starts off by describing what has actually changed without much judgment. First, Ilya states that Maps.me is no longer offline maps, but instead is all online, tiles loaded on demand, with some offline capabilities “yes, exactly the same as in Google Maps.” The app now uses the Mapbox SDK which initially made things slower, though a fix seems to have been deployed. Fundamentally, this means what was a lightweight, fast-loading application usable anywhere regardless of stable internet access is now much bulkier. As Ilya sums it up, “…the new owners threw out the main, in my opinion, functionality in the application.”
Ilya also describes several other steps backward. First, the place/address search seems to perform more poorly. In addition, the pedestrian paths don’t appear visible like they were before. Ilya says these paths were a key feature for him:
.Pedestrian navigation was one of the key features of the application for me, how many paths we took when traveling, and neither Apple Maps nor Google Maps knew about these paths.
Ilya also adds that “the UI has become monstrous, and in general it strongly resembles Google Maps.” I am not certain if this means that the Google Maps UI itself is monstrous, or if what may be a beautiful Google Maps UI is manifested here in an ugly way. Aside from the above, Ilya lists 12 other downgrades and disappearances including lack of public transit navigation, poor offline performance, and lack of OSM editing.
Finally, Ilya gives four options of what to do if you were a passionate Maps.me user in the past. In summary: do not upgrade; switch to the yet to be refined open source version; wait for a proper fork (for iOS particularly); use alternative OSM-based apps like OsmAnd.
Surveying the crowd
Of course this review of Ilya Zverev’s article is not complete without a look at the comments as well, and thus Google Translate comes in handy once more. I sifted through some of the 399 comments as of today.
Many commenters cited their impending move to a new app like OsmAnd, Locus Maps, Mapy.cz, or Guru Maps. Another points out that Mail.Ru’s projects in food delivery use Google Maps, and hence Maps.me wasn’t achieving anything new under their ownership. One commenter, presumably a developer in the pre-Daegu days of Maps.me, implies no part in the recent product decisions and says about the change in direction: “It came as a surprise to us.”
Another commenter talks about the need for revenue in the design choices:
… [it is] about increasing the visibility of shops and cafes. And it's hard to make money on footpaths and railway lines. It is also difficult to make money offline…
One commenter implies that the need that Maps.me fulfilled is a thing of the past (it would be worthwhile to see where in the world these 140 million installs are, in case they don’t have world city level wifi/LTE/5G).
…it seems that offline maps were relevant in the days of slow and expensive mobile Internet. I myself used them then 7-5 years ago. That is, for me they were travel maps. And in recent years, I don't understand why this is necessary at all, when there are tariffs with free unlimited data roaming…
And of course, the ultimate edge case:
For example, I used an offline mod in North Korea. Do you have any ingenious suggestions how I could use online maps there? :)
Overall, while the nuances of the future of Maps.me are not clear, it seems the high level strategy is obvious. What is now gone is the past, lightweight version with a detail true to OSM’s rich database. What will be here to stay is the monetization via highlighting businesses, removing niche features for easier maintenance, and steering user behavior toward what can be profitable.
We may be able to close the books on Maps.me for the time being. It is clear that the strategy for the app has shifted as ownership changed. It seems that instead of an obscure payments company registered in Cyprus trying to create its own mobile app with a maps, POI lookup, and navigation focus, this company decided to cannibalize an already existing app, maybe with the idea that it could retain some of the active users (remember, 10 million monthly active users claimed). If 90% of those users leave, it may still be a success and worth the roughly $20 million purchase.
I would love to see the analytics for Maps.me showing the location of IP addresses pinging the app, or information about the users who downloaded it. I am most curious to know the global distribution of users, as I am not sure what part of the world Daegu/Parity is hoping to target with its payment services, what demographics, or how seriously it wants to compete with Google Maps rather than something like China’s WeChat payments or something like the US-based Cash App or Stripe.
This is a novel thing in the OpenStreetMap world however: maps as an essential part of an app that encourages users to adopt is wallet and money transfer features. Imagine a payments app like Transferwise purchasing OsmAnd or Magic Earth. Is that was is happening? Google and Maps.me (via Mail.Ru) both were inserting links to sites like Booking.com in their maps, when hotels were searched. While Google Maps more broadly seeks monetization through advertising various businesses, is Daegu/Parity looking to also monetize through transaction fees? Are other companies looking to use maps as a basis for other monetization methods, like inserting a peer to peer buying/selling platform (Craigslist and such) into a map app? What other profitable services could be built on top of the map that we may use to otherwise navigate highways, find a park, or check the distance on a hiking trail?
We’ll explore more about the possible ways to monetize a map-based mobile app in part 3. Overall, I think it’s safe to say that once again, Google Maps remains at the top of the food chain, and Maps.me is rapidly relinquishing it’s former position as the top OSM-based competitor to Google Maps.