With Apple’s announcement of new mapping software for its iOS line of software today, we are abruptly reminded that, like word processing and file sharing, Google did not invent interactive maps. There is a world of alternative platforms to Google Maps that offer advanced customization and other features Google doesn’t offer in their API. Below is a list of my favorite platforms that can be used to enhance the user experience in any website or mobile app:
By far the most advanced, MapBox is not just a platform; it is a full mapping solution that allows for customization of every level of the interactive map experience. Any visual element on a map and any sort of interface overlay such as icons, popups, and routes can be dynamically styled and modified. The drawback is the price. MapBox offers limited customization per map for free, but for any sort of meaningful usage, be prepared to pay a premium per month. With that premium comes access to the wealth of tools and services MapBox offers. While the service might be costly to license, what it returns is a mapping experience totally unique to you.
Known as the Wikipedia of maps, OpenStreetMaps (OSM) is an open source project sponsored by a few large tech companies (including Google) with an aim to provide a comprehensive, community-managed mapping platform. At its core, OSM is a simple service that allows anyone to define points-of-interest and routes, but around OSM has developed an entire ecosystem of software and solutions that allow for customization and control comparable to MapBox’s offerings. Of course, use of OSM and most tools associated with it is free thanks to its open source nature, but be prepared to invest some more time in this tool than the commercial competitors. While open source technology has high appeal to the do-it-yourselfer, sometimes it is better to pay a little extra to save a lot of time.
Competing more with MapBox than OpenStreetMaps, CloudMade is another complete solution for mapping needs but with an alternative pricing structure. All of the content styling and customization tools are open source tools built on top of OpenStreetMaps. Therefore, creating any sort of custom map with CloudMade is free but a little more challenging because of the roots in OSM. CloudMade’s real value-add is an extensive catalogue of paid-for point-of-interest (POI) data that can be filtered and added to your custom map experience is not available from MapBox or OpenStreetMaps. CloudMade also offers interesting location-aware tools such as a turn-by-turn navigation engine and a location-based game opponent discovery.
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