OpenStreetMap

MapBox and MapQuest ... the bit the tech pundits are missing

Posted by SimonPoole on 18 June 2015 in English (English)

In all the noise about MapBox's Series B offering and their successful bid to replace MapQuest's in house map rendering capability, it seems that our dear trade rags missed something.

Likely the most important medium term aspect of the successful bid is that it removed funding and support for a competing vector tile rendering stack that MQ was developing internally.

Anybody that has been following the developments knows that while open source and in principle freely available, the MapBox vector tile stack doesn't work "out of the box" in any reasonable meaning of the words. It follows the trend of the bits and pieces of MapBox's technology becoming increasingly more difficult to use in practice by the community. The other well known example is MapBox studio, the follow up to the widely independently used TileMill.

A recent article actually points to parts that are closed source, a not completly unexpected change of direction.

Now I think we all realize that it is just a matter of time till the open source community catches up on the vector tile front. This will address some of the issues the OSM community has been having with its map rendering and even the playing field a bit. But MapBox has clearly bought themselves some more breathing space for now.

Comment from imagico on 18 June 2015 at 10:53

It seems to me vector tiles technology is only an example for a somewhat more general problem. There are quite a few people and smaller companies working on and practically using vector tiles technology - like for example Andy Allen, but when you develop sophisticated stuff primarily for your own use releasing it as open source is a mixed bag, you spend a lot of time bringing things into a form that works out of the box for others and document it so people are actually able to use it but if you are not primarily a software developer there is little gain in doing so. I'd guess the situation is somewhat similar even for a fairly large company like Mapbox, their primary business is not developing software - despite employing several core developers of open source software projects.

If you read closely this can also more or less be found in https://www.mapbox.com/about/open/ - both for open/closed software and data by the way. This is somewhat at odds with marketing claims like 'majority of their data is open' or 'dedication to being open' IMO but from a business perspective this is a consistent view. It is unlikely that you will see a company like Mapbox preferencing open compared to closed (software or data) unless it seems to be favorable for them from a business perspective.

The real question is where these mechanisms leave us in terms of innovation. I have no doubts open source has such a solid position meanwhile that whenever something innovative, widely useful and popular is developed it will sooner or later also get available as open source. But if business structures prevent actual innovation from happening, for example because a few dominating companies in a field prevent innovative ideas from gaining foothold because they threaten their business model this becomes a real problem. Most people consider this to be a problem w.r.t. Google but it is perfectly possible that this also applies to Mapbox in some areas.

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Comment from SimonPoole on 18 June 2015 at 11:29

@imagico it is undoubtably quite legit for MapBox to control what others can easily use of the technology they have developed (well in most cases it is more continued development of projects that existed pre-MB). The blog post was more about cutting through the haze of rethoric camouflaging completely conventional business practices.

And as you point out, the basic underlying business model is not really new, it is just that the trade rags have lost track of what the previous dozen of buzz words for the same were.

I don't have an opinion on if there is space in MapBoxes niche for more than one player at this point in time. What is however clear is that the easy available capital in the states makes it extremely difficult for any European company to compete, not that any of the other players have indicated that they really want to do so.

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