5 May 2018

A time for free maps

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that enthusiasm for Leaflet and OpenLayers web mapping libraries has cooled over recent times. After several years of real excitement, many seem to have drifted away to proprietary platforms such as Mapbox or Carto. Or Google Maps.

Then this week, Google announced changes to their mapping platform. At this early stage, I make absolutely no claim to have digested the changes from Google. I believe that they have reduced their free usage allowance significantly, upped their usage charges by some degree, and now require credit card details for all use of their API (even free tier), but I absolutely could be wrong. It is possible that everyone has overreacted, and we will all get used to the new normal fairly quickly. However, a significant proportion of the online mapping developer community is up in arms.

Regardless of the details, this is a glaring instance of the perils of reliance on a single commercial service provider, even if the service on which you rely is free. If the provider is commercial, there is zero guarantee that the service will remain free.

The result of this change could mean that millions of sites (ours included) will now start to cost their owners additional usage fees, and thousands of developers will have to investigate alternatives for online maps on their clients’ sites.

Everyone must understand that, while Google is often portrayed as a malefactor among those in the open-source community, and while I have the utmost respect for other commercial mapping providers, the same could happen with Mapbox, Carto, or whoever else you sign up to for data and mapping services. That’s the deal: you sign up with a commercial provider, and you pay what they charge. That figure can increase. It’s not evil — it’s commercial.

This is now the time both for open-source mapping software providers to shout about their products from the rooftops, and for OpenStreetMap and other open data providers to prove their inestimable importance to us all. To make this crystal clear: if we had all used Leaflet/OpenLayers and OpenStreetMap instead of Google Maps, we would have known from the start that such a change could never legally catch us off-balance.

I upgraded teh maps.
Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #2074 by Ape-Lad (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This is my call to the amazing developers of Leaflet and OpenLayers, and to the astonishing force that is OpenStreetMap, to step in right now. Shout about what you are, and seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explain to people why arguments over open versus proprietary are not tribal or academic zealotry. You now have a concrete compelling argument to those who have always asked: “Why not just use Google Maps?”