Google Maps lost another high-profile customer on Thursday when Wikipedia announced that it would be switching to OpenStreetMap (OSM), a free, crowdsourced alternative mapping project based in the UK, for use in Wikipedia’s new mobile apps.
“For OSM, we see this as validation — another of the world’s biggest sites has decided that OSM data is worth switching to,” said Richard Fairhurst, an OpenStreetMap foundation board member, in an email to TPM. “We’re sure it will bring more contributors to add their local knowledge to OSM, and so it continues - very much a virtuous circle.”
OpenStreetMap, a collaborative map launched in 2004, aims to provide a comprehensive world map based by harnessing location data uploaded by an army of volunteer cartographers, now numbering well over 500,000 around the globe.
The OSM project flew under the radar of many tech websites and Web users until recently, however, when several major companies, including Apple and Foursquare, dropped their previous default use of Google Maps in apps in favor of OpenStreetMap. In the case of Apple, the company quietly began using OSM data in its iPhoto app without proper attribution, one of OSM’s only conditions for usage.
Still, the defections of those companies and now Wikipedia came several months after Google started charging heavy users of the Google Maps API in January 2012.
But Fairhurst claims that Wikipedia’s defection is much more than about money, it’s because it thinks OSM is actually a superior mapping product, at least for Wikipedia’s needs.
“For Wikimedia [Wikipedia’s parent foundation], it’s not just a short-term fix to avoid Google licensing fees,” Fairhurst wrote, “It’s a much better solution for their contributors and their users.”
That’s because although Wikipedia is using MapQuest’s branded and designed version of OSM’s data, Wikipedia says that it plans on switching to its own servers in the future.
“This gives them more flexibility, especially in the area of multi-lingual rendering,” Fairhurst explained to TPM. “Their ‘toolserver’ is able to produce maps in dozens of languages, pulling the relevant data out of OSM each time.”
Fairhurst has another theory behind the Wikipedia switch: “Google Maps is essentially a road map at heart, whereas OSM’s much richer data can give more context when used to illustrate Wikipedia articles.”
Time will tell whether other companies agree. For now, Google Maps remains the Web’s most popular mapping service by sheer volume of visitors, according to tracking website Alexa, but OSM is climbing the ranks at number six.