Comment: End of the road for professional mapping

TomTom’s new “Map Share” technology is undoubtedly a welcome convenience for motorists. They can now edit the maps on their SatNav device, enabling them to add one-way systems, block off exits and even draw new roads to reflect changes in the real world. These modifications can then be shared with other drivers via the internet. No doubt, it’s a clever system. Click here for full details.

Comment: End of the road for professional mapping

Yet its significance is far greater than TomTom is letting on. The ability to share updates opens the door to free, community-created maps – a development which dramatically severs the umbilical link that has bound SatNav to commercial map makers such as Tele Atlas and Navteq.

This can only be good news for consumers, who have previously had to pay to keep their SatNav maps up-to-date; but it’s a disaster for the cartographers, who may soon discover – as those who publish magazines, music, films and software already have – how little respect the internet has for content creators.

It’s not online law-breakers that could threaten the map makers’ livelihoods, though: it’s a million competitors working together, perfectly legally, for free.

Of course, when a job’s done by volunteers, it’s not always done well. But peer-to-peer cartography can benefit from individual self-interest. Since drivers use GPS devices for planning their own routes, there’s a clear incentive for each driver to make accurate road updates to his or her unit.

Online map servers could collate these updates and make them available to other visitors (along with trustworthiness data, such as the number of independent corroborations). Only out-of-the-way areas might remain murky, leaving commercial entities to fulfill their natural role: mapping the places that no one will map for free.

It won’t happen overnight. TomTom’s unassuming launch shows it has no immediate plans to turn the market upside-down, and it’s not about to shoot itself in the foot by immediately shredding the healthy revenue it makes from selling maps. Indeed, for now it’s only offering the Map Share service to customers with fully paid-up map subscriptions.

No competitor has yet even announced a comparable system. And even once a free system is in place, it will take time for community-created maps to attain the completeness and credibility required to earn the trust of mainstream motorists.

But the genie’s out of the bottle, and from here demand can only grow. TomTom may not be ready to cut loose from commercial maps, but sooner or later that’s where this announcement inevitably leads. And not just for TomTom but for the entire industry.

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