The hazard of relying on commercial implementations of Open Source projects

Posted by Mark Newnham on 31 January 2014 in English (English)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve made use of a couple of OpenStreetMap based projects, both on a personal and professional level. While the projects themselves were very different, the supplier for the software was the same, Cloudmade Software

The first project is the Android based application, MapDroyd This application had all the makings of a superb offline mapping application, with stability, regular delivery of updated maps and a strong following. The benefits of offline mapping here in rural mountain states USA cannot be emphasized, with phone and data service being spotty and often non-existent, depending on the carrier, making Google Maps useless. Incidentally, Open Street Map holds a serious mapping quality lead in rural areas, Google still relying on unmodified years-old Tiger data in some places.

About 18 months ago, Cloudmade ceased updating the maps but left the application up on the play store with increasing numbers of complaints, leaving those of us attached to the product, and who had worked to improve local mapping quality lost.

A recent discussion with a committee member of “Denver Sister Cities about delivering technology to support the gift of a utility vehicle to Axum,Ethiopia had me thinking about the product again. With seriously spotty phone coverage, the problems of Africa are embarrassingly similar to those here in the rural areas of the USA. An offline map product available to cheap Android platforms should be a winner.

The second project was a prototype of a geocoding and routing application based around the routing services and Leaflet Javascript Libraries. All questions placed on the Cloudmade developer support forums were left unanswered, as if there were nothing behind a good looking web site.

Ultimately, the question is: Does a commercial company hurt an Open Source projects standing by failing to deliver a promised value-added product based on that project. Personally evangelizing for open source solutions as an alternative to strictly commercial implementations can be damaging professionally when the delivery of the product fails to live up to the promise. To the layman, the fortunes of the underlying project and the value-added provider are inextricably linked, as in, “The OpenStreetMap data is good, but we can’t rely on company xxx, so we’re going with Google”.

Comment from amillar on 31 January 2014 at 21:48

While I agree with you that short-lived commercial software is indeed frustrating, I believe the whole scenario actually proves out the value of Open Data.

The true value in all of this is that NONE of the map data, including contributions and improvements, are lost when one commercial provider ceases to function.

Alternatives for Android include OsmAnd, Navit, and Vespucci. Not to mention non-Android alternatives, such as mkgmap for making Garmin map files for cheap Garmin gps units.

How do their features compare with Google’s own off-line Android mapping app? That’s simple: Google doesn’t have an off-line app. And you CAN’T make one or hire someone to make one, because Google doesn’t make the data available.

Any anyone who thinks that it’s safe to go with Google anyways, clearly wasn’t a user of Google Reader, GOOG-411, Google Buzz, Knol, Google Wave, Google Building Maker, iGoogle, or any of the dozen other Google products/services that the discontinued when they felt like it.

Comment from Hjart on 1 February 2014 at 08:22

A popular (also among many humanitarian workers in i.e. Africa) OSM based offline routing app for Android is the open source OsmAnd. There are several commercial OSM based alternatives such as Mapfactor Navigator and GPS Navigator by Skobbler. For mere mapviewing MapsWithMe is fast and very popular. Also note that there are several sources for premade OSM based maps for many Garmin models. Vespucci is for editing OpenStreetMap, but please note that it is not exactly easy to use.

Comment from Richard on 1 February 2014 at 10:19

I’m not sure that the problem here is “The hazard of relying on commercial implementations”, more “The hazard of relying on CloudMade”. It’s not necessarily endemic.

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