Sure, Skobbler offers something many other maps don’t — fully downloadable, or cached, map data, for offline use. But that will set users back a few pennies, starting at $0.99 to get a selected city, all the way up to $9.99 for the full world map (state, country and continent levels are priced accordingly in between).
“There are very good arguments against it being sensible to act the way we did,” said Skobbler co-founder Marcus Thielking, in a phone interview with TPM.
The main argument is of course Android’s parent company, Google, which makes the most widely used free digital map on the Internet, and which already offers a specific Android Maps app with numerous helpful features above and beyond those available to users on other devices, including voice guided, turn-by-turn GPS directions and multiple-level indoor maps. In fact, it was reportedly Google’s refusal to include voice-guided directions in the Google Maps app for Apple devices that led Apple to kick Google Maps off the iPhone and iPad in September 2012.
Indeed, to a casual observer, the sudden absence of Google Maps on the iPhone and iPad, coupled with the mass complaints from users and the press about the inferiority and unreliability of the replacement Apple Maps, would seem to have created the ideal opportunity for another map challenger, such as Skobbler, to bring a superior app to Apple’s App Store. Nokia took this route, rushing its new HERE Maps app into the Apple App Store to mixed reviews.
So just what was Skobbler thinking, waltzing straight into the lion’s den that is Google’s Play app store?
“It comes down to how many people we have available to work on certain projects,” Thielking told TPM, noting that Skobbler, which launched as a spin-off of Romanian map company Navigon in 2008, now has 70 full time employees — still a much smaller company than Google or Nokia.
More specifically, Thielking revealed that Skobbler is “refocusing from a B2C [business to consumer] company to a B2B [businesses to business] company,” creating map apps for specific business customers using the same map data and software it used to build its own ForeverMap 2.
The map data itself comes from OpenStreetMap, the free, crowdsourced world map that is assembled by volunteer contributors around the globe, now numbering nearly 1 million. Skobbler’s software is called Skobbler GeOS, and includes support for Web and mobile versions of Skobbler’s view of OpenStreetMap.
Though the raw OpenStreetMap is free for anyone to use, Skobbler is trying to sell the idea to other companies that its own software improves OpenStreetMap for specific business use cases, filling in some of the gaps that the crowdsourced map still hasn’t yet done on its own, such as comprehensive address and street number data for the U.S. Not to mention the fact that OpenStreetMap on its own doesn’t provide anything as fancy as routing or other navigation features.
“What we’ve found is that businesses are looking for an OSM application that gives them ease of use and the full capabilities that Google Maps does,” Skobbler said. “This product [ForeverMap 2] is a showcase for the underlying technology capability for the service that we provide.”
And as Theilking revealed, that service is increasingly in high demand. That’s because many businesses looking to provide maps and location capabilities in their apps and services balked at Google’s decision in January 2012 to begin charging for heavy use of Google Maps (defined as over 25,000 map loads). The decision led Foursquare in February to defect to OpenStreetMap (though notably not Skobbler’s version), Wikipedia to follow later, and is thought to have contributed to Apple severing its ties with Google and to be the reason Craigslist also used OpenStreetMap for its new maps features.
Although OpenStreetMap is increasingly seen as an attractive option — free and constantly updated by an army of local contributors — the lack of comprehensive data and other features means that middlemen companies like Skobbler and D.C.-based Mapbox are in a great position to offer tailored versions of OpenStreetMap to businesses looking to switch from Google Maps.
According to Thielking, some of the biggest industries in the world have approached Skobbler about doing just that.
Thielking couldn’t name specifics due to the confidentiality of ongoing negotiations, but was able to state that that the companies seeking Skobber’s version of OpenStreetMap were top auto companies from around the globe, many of who Thielking noted were wary of locking into Google Maps for their built-in GPS navigation services not just because of the cost of using Google Maps, but because Google has been open about its plans to develop self-driving cars, which may some day put it, or its auto allies, in competition with other auto companies.
Other companies in discussion about using Skobbler’s GeOS software for OpenStreetMap access include several leading global tech brands.
“What they want is an application programming interface (API) set, or software development kit (SDK), that allows them to build their product or service or around OpenStreetMap,” Thielking told TPM. “That is really what is driving us at this point.”
“What Red Hat is to Linux, that’s the position we want to be for OpenStreetMap. We want to become the Red Hat of OpenStreetMap,” Thielking added, referring to the U.S. software firm that specializes in providing open-sourced software, including Linux, to companies for enterprise use.
Further, as Thielking noted, “ForeverMap 2 is great way to show that you don’t have any quality issues to worry about,” to those companies.
And despite the company’s pivot to focus on businesses, Skobbler plans to have an iOS version of ForeverMap 2 available in the Apple App Store within a few weeks time, subject to Apple’s approval process. On Tuesday, when this article ran, a new version was approved for the Barnes & Noble Nook App Store. Thielking added that a version for the Amazon Android Appstore, which powers the Kindle, would also be available in days.