Google reduces its fees for mapping APIs as competition intensifies

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Peggy AlbrightCompetition is intensifying among mapping solutions and it could impact developers that incorporate mapping into their mobile apps. 

One important change has been Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) flip-flop on the fees it charges developers to use Google Maps. Late last year, the company began charging substantial fees for certain types and levels of access to its previously free Google Maps API. The fee policy prompted an exodus of companies away from the technology and toward other approaches. Many developers expected the backlash would force Google to reconsider the policy and last month it did just that, substantially reducing the fees and loosening its usage terms to mitigate Google Maps' costs for all but the heaviest users.   

The reversal of policy is no doubt welcome by many, but by now Google's competitors have announced a slew of new mapping options that will compete with Google Maps. Many of these announcements have come in the last month.

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), for example, announced that the latest version of its operating system, iOS 6, will use an in-house maps technology, ending Apple's longstanding tie with Google for its mapping and location features. The research firm Analysys Mason said that Google Maps could lose up to a third of its mobile users with the launch of Apple's alternative service. The new Apple Maps feature also illustrates how different companies will seek to differentiate their mapping solutions. Apple's Maps for iOS 6, for example, incorporates 100 million business listings, Yelp business recommendations, real-time crowdsourced traffic data and turn-by-turn navigation capabilities, as well as Flyover, a new 3D feature for viewing landscapes and cities.

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) announced that it incorporated Nokia Maps into the Windows Phone 8 platform. It will have APIs that developers can use to add Nokia Maps-based navigation and location features to their apps, including turn-by-turn directions and the ability for end-users to store maps offline. The service will use global mapping data from Nokia's subsidiary, Navteq. Previously, Microsoft used Bing Maps for Windows Phone.

Google also announced several Google Maps technology innovations for developers in addition to its API fee reductions. It launched 3D mapping capabilities, made it possible for developers to incorporate public transit information into their apps and reformatted advertising formats for the Maps application to improve the effectiveness of local ads. It also continues to roll out in-building maps, a feature it announced late last year.

And now Amazon is getting into the maps business .Amazon recently purchased UpNext Maps, a 3D mapping company, according to a report in GigaOm. The acquisition is fueling speculation that Amazon intends to build its own mapping service that could be used for future Kindle Fire products. Currently, Kindle Fire users need to download third-party mapping applications from the Amazon Appstore for Android or access online mapping services via the tablet browser.

Suddenly, in the span of one month, developers that relied on Google Maps for most of their applications are now looking at a range of mapping options and functions, many of which are associated with particular mobile operating systems. Developers will need to figure out how these options influence their app development roadmaps and they'll need to be careful about the decisions they make.

"It requires a strategic team to understand what the needed functionalities are," Eric Wilson, managing partner at Appital Mobile, told FierceDeveloper.

Developers could be impacted in several ways. Those that distribute apps to multiple platforms will need to think about how to maintain consistent user experiences for their customers. It's even possible, that a developer might even use a certain OS or platform just because it offers a particular mapping feature. 

The new maps marketplace is still emerging because many of these most recent innovations have not launched yet. As developers respond to the new mapping options, the technology choices they make and the innovations they create will influence how this new ecosystem evolves. Developers' innovations based on mapping technologies will also help advance a new generation of location-related services that we can't even imagine today.--Peggy