Mapping Android's Future

Google Maps Has Pros and Cons, But Alternatives Exist

Having mapping features in one's application is popular in Android applications. After all, Android is from Google, and Google does maps. Google Maps is available in the Android SDK, and you get a fairly nice user experience. Implementing a map with overlays (for your own “push pins” or route markers) is reasonably simple for skilled developers. All in all, it is a nice solution.

However, Google Maps for Android has its issues, and there are alternatives that you may wish to consider.

First, not all Android devices will have Google Maps integrated in. That is a component one must license from Google; it is not part of the open source Android project. Hence, smaller device manufacturers, or those perhaps trying to reduce licensing or silicon costs, may skip Google Maps. As a result, your application will not be installable on those devices.

Also, Google Maps has a terms of service for developers using the API, and those terms of service may contain clauses with which you are uncomfortable. For example, clause 8.7 restricts your use of Google Maps, barring many logical uses of the technology, such as real-time navigation or fleet management. This is not necessarily Google's fault, as they license much of the Google Maps data from other firms, and those firms impose their own usage restrictions.

Finally, because Google Maps is the norm, your application using the same mapping technology limits your ability to distinguish yourself. You are “keeping up with the Joneses” rather than using something that may offer you a competitive advantage over other applications using maps.

As a result of all of these, you may wish to consider experimenting with other mapping solutions for Android.

One alternative is Ericsson's Mobile Maps for Android. Whereas Google Maps ships down mapping data in the form of bitmap tiles, Mobile Maps for Android uses vector graphics, which in principle should allow for faster map downloads and smoother zooming. This also means lower costs for end users who are on metered data plans, common in many parts of the world. It also means you, as a developer, get more control over the rendering of the maps, such as controlling the colors used for various map elements. However, the terms of service for Mobile Maps for Android may cause you similar issues as did the terms of service for Google Maps.

If legal terms are your main issue, you should consider working with OpenStreetMap. They are, effectively, the Wikipedia of mapping, leveraging public data and public contributions to build up a mapping system akin to a lightweight Google Maps. Their data is released under open licenses that allow a much wider range of potential applications than their fully commercial counterparts. There have been some projects and applications that have integrated OpenStreetMap with Android, though work is still ongoing.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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