MapQuest Continues to Redefine Itself

By Adena Schutzberg

_For the last 10 years or so, when the person in the airline seat asked me what I did, I'd say "computer mapping." If they said, "GIS?" I was set. If they looked at me quizzically, I said, "You know, like MapQuest." That always prompted a nod of familiarity. They knew that MapQuest is that mapping website where you can get directions. I still think of the company that way, despite knowing it does even more. I spoke with Christian Dwyer, the Director and GM of the Business to Business (B2B) division of MapQuest, at our Location Intelligence conference to round out my understanding and get an update on where the company is going.

Besides B2B, which is essentially the commercial licensing of the company's well-known Web mapping engine, MapQuest has publishing, ".com" and wireless divisions. The publishing arm, dating back to the early days before the Internet, offers printed atlases. The ".com" division manages the website that continues to top the mapping charts, despite competitive mapping offerings from Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and others. The wireless division brings the Web offering to mobile devices.

Wireless already offers several products. As our conference began last Monday (April 3), MapQuest announced two new additions to its wireless lineup. First, there's an updated Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) version of the website, which allows anyone with Web access on a phone to use for free on their handset. The idea is to make MapQuest ubiquitous on phones. Second, MapQuest announced MapQuest Navigator, a turn-by-turn directions solutions for GPS-enabled mobile phones. Carriers and pricing have not been announced and the service will launch in the third quarter of this year.

Learning from the User Base and the Times
I asked Dwyer about the new hardware MapQuest announced at the end of 2005, a branded TomTom device. Dwyer was frank, saying, "We learned a lot about our customer base" with that launch. He noted hundreds of units sold, but agreed that it's bit of a leap for users of a free website to purchase a several hundred dollar in-car system.

Dwyer makes no apologies for what I like to call MapQuest's "last place finish" in the map website innovation contest over the past few years. The company works to support its loyal and very large user base which depends on the .com offering and its commercial API, he notes. The most recent comScore Media Metrix report cites "more than 46 million unique users in March, 2006." Further, 1,400 businesses use the commercial API. While newer players have more bells and whistles, MapQuest is clearly doing something right in serving these groups.

Dwyer points to its inclusion of imagery from GlobeXplorer at in 2001-2004 and notes MapQuest was simply ahead of its time in the sense that neither company knew how exactly to monetize those data. Now of course, detailed, extensive imagery is "required" on mapping sites and GlobeXplorer (and others) have determined how to charge for it. And MapQuest won't be left behind: aerials are coming back in a future offering, as are "live maps" with real time panning (a la Google Maps), and street level images, promises Dwyer. The company is still exploring street level imagery and Dwyer explains that MapQuest wants to "stay away from gaming" interfaces, since that's not its customers' need.

Adding a Free API to the Mix
Dwyer spoke about how open source geospatial "works" from a business standpoint: companies offer the product for free but service and support for a fee. MapQuest is using the same strategy with its newly announced free API.. In both cases making the free version available hopefully gets some developers involved which will eventually cause them to pay for support, which in the case of MapQuest means converting to the commercial offering. Dwyer is realistic that just a small proportion will convert. That said, the company is pleased with the thousands of downloads of the API in the first month of availability.

The developers who've downloaded the beta API toolkit have made their opinions known regarding what they want changed. The list was topped by an account management situation that was easily fixed. Number two on the list was the addition of data for Europe, which is coming in the next few weeks. MapQuest's API contest is ongoing, so Dwyer could not share any of the mashups submitted thus far, but was pleased to point out some public ones, such as a church in Denton, Texas that built a simple app to help route individuals to church. "The church would never be a paying client, but this way they can serve their community." More importantly, perhaps, to MapQuest, it can be a good corporate citizen and enable this sort of public service.

Dwyer was also candid about hiring a company, Seisan Consulting, to see what it could do with the API. "We were blown away with the result," he reports referring to Mapzierge, a mashup shown at the first session of the conference. It mashes an events website with maps and includes the ability to do routing from, say a baseball game, to a restaurant and then a bar for a complete evening's entertainment. I confess to finding it a bit complex to use in the demo, but the functionality was quite advanced.

We finished up by taking a look at the MapQuest the world sees, the website. Dwyer outlined four "pillars" including some functionality of which I was not aware. First off is "Places," a built-in local search tool. Don't know the address, but rather what you are looking for? Enter it in for a "local search" map of what fits the category for the geography of interest. The database behind these searches is built from business directories, gazetteers and other resources and searched with great speed by Fast's technology. The second hallmark is the goal of making the information on available on a mobile phone. The third, coming soon, relates to personalization, creating a custom map for say a birthday party or mapping your IM buddies. The fourth relates to support of international business, including such efforts as re-launching country-specific portals for France, Germany and Great Britain.

MapQuest in Context
A few things strike me about MapQuest's redefinition of itself in these changing times of mapping. First, I see a parallel between what the company is doing and what ESRI is doing. Both started out with large, loyal followings which pay for software or services. Now, both must realign to a world that requires they offer at least some free software and free services. Second, MapQuest faces the exact opposite of Google's challenge in mapping. The Google Maps API has been free; only now is the company working to monetize it via ads and commercial options. MapQuest is going the other way: from paid to offering free services. MapQuest is a Web services company with a legacy and many loyal users. How it succeeds or fails seems to depend as much on serving traditional users as drawing new ones brought up in the era of free APIs.

Published Tuesday, April 18th, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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