Maps are a big deal. In a world where location increasingly matters for commerce, and our mobile apps ache to help us find friends, businesses, and directions to our next appointment, we increasingly insist that mapping data be fast, accurate, and free. Deliver bad data, as Apple learned two years ago when it released a substandard mapping product, and risk massive customer defections.

All of which means that OpenStreetMap, a community-driven alternative to commercial mapping products like Google Maps, could be one of the most exciting open-source projects ever. Google, the top source for mapping data, charges for its data and, more importantly, owns all of its data. OpenStreetMap, on the other hand, allows free use of all its data for any purpose as long as you credit OpenStreetMap and its contributors.

“Free” sounds like a winning strategy, and yet it’s not at all clear that OpenStreetMap will win. While it has a chance to impact the world in a Linux-like way, it also runs the risk of falling flat like OpenOffice. Which will it be?

A mapping rebellion is rising

Odds are good that you’ve never heard of OpenStreetMap, though you’ve likely used its data. After all, a variety of leading organizations depend on OpenStreetMap data, including Foursquare, Craigslist, and even Apple, which uses OpenStreetMap data to power iPhoto mapping data.

Others have registered to use OpenStreetMap data directly: over 1.5 million such “others” have contributed many terabytes of geo data since 2004 (Figure A):

Figure A

OpenStreetMap data since 2004.

More importantly, however, given that OpenStreetMap is a community-driven mapping service, are the number of unique contributors (Figure B):

Figure B

OpenStreetMap unique contributors.

Why do they bother, given that individuals and companies can get mapping data from a host of companies? Given the free market in mapping data, who needs OpenStreetMap?

Many OpenStreetMap contributors would no doubt agree with Serge Wroclawski, an OpenStreetMap evangelist and contributor who writes:

“The answer is simply that as a society, no one company should have a monopoly on place, just as no one company had a monopoly on time in the 1800s. Place is a shared resource, and when you give all that power to a single entity, you are giving them the power not only to tell you about your location, but to shape it.”

This wouldn’t matter if it were merely a matter of contribution. After all, following OpenStreetMap’s lead, Google also allows a community to update and improve its mapping data (sometimes with bad results). No, the critical thing is who owns the data. It’s the ownership question that keeps driving up OpenStreetMap’s user and contributor counts.

OpenOffice redux

It may not be enough. After all, we’ve had community uprisings before. I lived through the Microsoft Office revolts, when a band of merry OpenOffice developers (mostly financed by Sun Microsystems) took on Redmond with a free and “good enough” open-source office productivity suite.

The OpenOffice revolutionaries, similar to OpenStreetMap advocates, fought against Microsoft’s control of document data. They failed. Completely.

Why did OpenOffice fail? There are many reasons, including its monolithic code base that eschewed casual contributions and Sun’s heavy-handed control of the code. But the primary reason is that users didn’t want a free and good enough product. They wanted complete fidelity with Microsoft Office file formats and functionality.

OpenOffice was a decent product, but it was a shoddy Microsoft Office.

In like manner, OpenStreetMap gets faulted for being a too tightly knit club: “If you want to contribute as a sysadmin and get into the tech details, you need to live in London and go to the pub with those guys.” Unlike OpenOffice, which relied almost entirely on (Sun-) paid developers, OpenStreetMap apparently struggles to incorporate paid developers, which is unwise given that most successful open-source projects rely on paid contributors.

It takes ongoing, dedicated commitment to a project to offer a steady stream of meaningful contributions.

As a case in point, OpenStreetMap gets developed unevenly, with different geographies seeing much better data density than others. When you rely on volunteers, you don’t get to choose where they live and update data. As the OpenStreetMap annual data report touts:

“Some areas of OpenStreetMap reach incredible points of data density, including every tree, precise details about houses and alleys, and much more. Frederick Ramm compiled a list of the top 208 most densely mapped areas of the world, which are often in France, the US, and Cameroon.”

While great for Cameroon, it’s doubtful that most users will find it comforting to know that their mapping data will be lighter in the UK or Japan vs. Cameroon.

OpenStreetMap’s biggest challenge: Convenience

OpenStreetMap’s biggest problem, and the one that ultimately sunk OpenOffice, is inertia and ease of use. That is, Google Maps currently offers the best mapping product, and users turn out to be more concerned with map quality than map freedom. Perhaps they’re wrong to do so, but few are going to make driving directions into a political statement.

That’s the crux of the matter: ultimately we care about what can be done with data, not the data itself. Google turns geospatial data into products, and even though it charges, application developers seem willing to pay the fees because of the rich quality of Google’s data.

Paul Ramsey argues that “From a base mapping point-of-view, [OpenStreet Map compares] very well [with Google Maps]. From a geocoding/routing point-of-view, [however, there is] still more work to be done.” This is the heart of the matter: Google Maps and its underlying data may simply be so easy to use that OpenStreetMap, for all its virtues, may never be able to catch up.

What do you think about the future of OpenStreetMap? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.