When embarking on a journey to build a location-based startup, one of the first things you should start thinking about is selecting the right mapping API that fits both your business needs, technical requirements and your budget.
To help with making the right decision, we’ve compiled a feature-based comparison of the most popular mapping APIs on the market: Google Maps, Mapbox and OpenStreetMap. If you’re not familiar with some of them, no worries, you should have a good understanding by the time you finish this piece. And if you’re completely new to location-based services, I’d recommend checking this article to learn more about the basics and relevant terminology.
Now, let’s dive straight in.
Which is the best map API?
Obvious question with a not-so-obvious answer. Each map API provider has its pros and cons, thus naming the best map API is dependent on your particular use case. To make the distinction between the selected candidates, let’s look at the benefits and drawbacks of each mapping service.
Google Maps review
Google Maps Platform is most likely what comes to mind in a split-second after you start thinking about map services, and it’s obviously not without a reason. If you look at the download statistics for maps application in the US in 2021, you’ll notice a clear winner.
This may lead you to believe that going with Google Maps should be a no-brainer.
But its consumer popularity is not that useful when it comes to business implementation.The reality is, your user base don’t particularly care what map API provider you use, if it does the job they expect your application to do. Just look at Facebook, for instance. It doesn’t use Google Maps and yet its map functionality doesn’t seem to suffer too much.
So in what cases should you look at Google Map API, and when should you divert your gaze?
Google Maps APIs
Maps API – offers a set of tools for creating, customizing and embedding maps on various platforms: mobile, web and cross-platform.
Street View API – offers access to real-world imagery and panoramic views.
Directions API – generates directions between various locations.
Distance Matrix API – measures travel distance and time for several points of destination.
Elevation API – generates elevation data for any point on the map.
Geocoding API – converts geographic coordinates into actual addresses.
Geolocation API – uses location data from Wi-Fi nodes and cellular towers to pinpoint user's exact location.
Places API – an enormous list of up-to-date information about various locations.
Roads API – offers accurate GPS tracking with snap-to-road functionality.
Time Zones API – provides time zone data for any location.
Because Google Maps are so widely used, they offer probably the largest database of both business and regular locations with constant updates and accurate data.
Google Maps support over 80 languages without you having to add them on your own, which can come handy if you’re planning to operate in less popular areas.
Relatively cheap for niche use cases with low traffic, currently (as of April 2022) offers 28 500 maploads per month for free.
Numerous APIs can cover a vast variety of your business needs.
Customization options are limited in comparison to its competitors, which might be a dealbreaker depending on your specific needs.
Not open-source, which means you’re bound to use what Google offers and adjusting it to your peculiar needs might require workarounds or won’t be possible at all.
Energy- and resources-hungry, which might be troublesome, especially if your market operates on low-spec devices.
After Google’s infamous spike in pricing back in 2018, many businesses are cautious of heavily relying on Google Maps services and potentially subjecting themselves to a sudden increase in overall usage costs.
Mapbox is probably the largest B2B competitor of Google Maps and rightfully so. They managed to develop an enormous number of various mapping services and tools, which I won’t even dare to try and list in this article. I’ll try my best to do an overview and for the complete information on Mapbox APIs – I’ll direct you to their documentation.
Maps APIs – offer a variety of tools for creation, customization and embedding of custom maps in mobile and web applications.
Navigation APIs – provide such functionalities as turn-by-turn navigation between multiple locations, route optimization, travel distance and time measurements.
Search APIs – perform worldwide forward and reverse geocoding.
Vision APIs – a set of tools for augmented reality navigation and automated driving applications that can interpret road scenes in real time.
Data APIs – allow adding a wide range of location datasets onto your maps, be it satellite imagery, aerial image, terrain data and more.
Mapbox Studio is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mapbox. It’s a tool that allows you to design the exact maps you need, from simply adding or tweaking a couple of elements, to creating a full-blown custom map of real and/or fantasy world in 2D or 3D.
Comprehensive documentation for developers provides all kinds of information for those who decide to use Mapbox in their project.
Due to strict data management rules imposed by Mapbox, you have no other choice but to essentially adopt a standardized map data handling approach, which will definitely be appreciated by your developers and your business in the long run.
Offline mode and great performance provided by Mapbox’s tileset architecture can be a great solution for many use cases, including those for working in areas with problematic internet connectivity or on low-spec devices.
A steep learning curve requires higher investments in your development team in order to: a) provide them with time needed to learn how to work with Mapbox; b) conduct a more selective recruitment process if you’re willing to hire experienced developers; and c) hire an external technology partner with extensive location-based services expertise.
Mapbox is only partly open-sourced, which means you can encounter limitations during the development process that might require workarounds.
Mapbox might be too complicated for smaller projects and definitely will be an overkill for a simple map embedding.
Might not be the best solution for India- and China-based projects due to not-so-high data accuracy.
OpenStreetMap (OSM) was founded even before Google Maps was launched, hence it’s definitely not some random map API provider that should be rejected without understanding what it can offer, although it might be much less known to a wider public.
OpenStreetMap is an open-source map provider that provides maps in their raw form, for free, with an open licence and freedom to use said data in the way businesses or private users want.
Unlike Google Maps and Mapbox, OSM doesn’t provide numerous API services out-of-the-box, and requires integrating, often also open-source, third-party services, ie traffic information, direction services etc. You can find a list of such components in OSM’s wiki. Here’s what you’ll get from OpenStreetMap by default:
Editing API – provides fetching and saving of raw geodata from and to OpenStreetMap’s database, which enables you to edit your map data according to your taste and requirements.
Overpass API – a read-only API that is optimized for dealing with user requests for various geodata with quick response rates.
Completely free and open source, which means you can tailor it specifically to your company’s needs and add additional functionalities without having to deal with workarounds or simply waiting for the provider to further develop their product.
A worldwide community constantly updates OSM mapping data and creates open-source solutions that enhance OpenStreetMap functionalities.
When used for bigger projects, can save large sums of money that would otherwise rack up enormous costs with Google Maps or Mapbox. Just to give you a perspective, we’ve managed to avoid a $420,000 monthly bill (approximated based on Google’s official pricing and project’s monthly number of requests) for one of our customers by not going with Google Maps and developing their own OpenStreetMap-based solution, which now calls for only $1,500 in monthly usage costs (mostly infrastructure maintenance).
Provides great performance and can be optimized even further, as shown by our experience in developing one of Europe’s largest logistics platforms – Trans.eu that has over 62,000 concurrent online companies (not users) and over 1,400,000 geocoding requests on a daily-basis in 45 various countries.
Poor documentation provides a steep learning curve, but once you master what OSM has to offer, you’re capable of delivering exactly what your product needs.
Due to fewer out-of-the-box features, requires initial capital investment in custom software development to build your own components and functionalities, or integrate with available, often also open-source, third-party services.
The majority of aggregated data is user-submitted, which may cause inaccuracies in certain regions and necessitate manual correction.
Might be an overkill for small-scale projects.
Google Maps vs. Mapbox vs. OpenStreetMap comparison
As you can see from our comparison, each solution has its pros and cons as well as use cases. There’s definitely no universal solution. Looking from our experience of developing a number of location-based startups and large enterprise solutions, predicting the scale of your application before deciding which map API provider to go with is very important.
You do want to avoid a situation where you spend half a year developing your product based on one provider, to then double the scale of maps usage and suddenly find yourself in a conundrum, trying to figure out how to decrease the unforeseen spike in monthly costs.
If you’re not sure how to do this research yourself, you can drop me an email at email@example.com, and I’ll connect you with our map experts for a quick consultation call.