Why Microsoft Loves The Rise of (Some) Openness

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how businesses based around giving stuff away were able to make money by replacing far more expensive options. One aspect of that is that open source leaves money in people's wallets. The other side, of course, is...


A few weeks ago, I wrote about how businesses based around giving stuff away were able to make money by replacing far more expensive options. One aspect of that is that open source leaves money in people's wallets. The other side, of course, is that purveyors of more expensive options tend to lose out. That's a pattern that is being repeated across different industries – not just in the software world.

One of the earliest non-software examples was the somewhat specialised world of encyclopaedias. Like free software, Wikipedia's free encyclopaedia was dismissed as amateurish and unable to replace professional efforts like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, say. And now we have this:

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.

Those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered reference books that were once sold door-to-door by a fleet of traveling salesmen and displayed as proud fixtures in American homes will be discontinued, company executives said.

In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools.

In a way, that's not so surprising: the company has been around for centuries – literally – and was wedded to an old model that was bound to be greatly affected by the rise of the Web. But almost the last thing you might have expected would be for a more recent startup to be caught wrong-footed by the rise of free alternatives. Especially when that startup is Google:

Because Google Maps was so ubiquitous, users had a fairly consistent experience, even while using other third-party applications built on top of it. But due to the growing business differences between Google and its high-profile developers, that's starting to crack. Foursquare started to bail in February, and now Wikipedia's mobile apps are going to OpenStreetMap as well.

Apple is another significant case. iOS still uses Google Maps as its out-of-the-box provider. But Apple recently launched iPhoto for iOS, an application it's using to push forward into uncharted waters of user experience. That app is the first piece of Apple software to ditch Google, and don't expect it to be the last.

What makes this flight from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap particularly remarkable is that Google's success is largely because it was one of the first to understand how free software could be used to provide a new way of scaling up enterprises without incurring crippling licensing costs. That's exactly the problem with Google Maps: as more services require location information, Google Maps' pricing structure becomes unsustainable. OpenStreetMap, by contrast, scales in the same way that GNU/Linux scales.

As the above article says, we can expect to see many more companies throwing out Google Maps and switching to OpenStreetMap, unless Google suddenly gets wise and decides to make it service available for free. There are lots of good reason to do that – not least the fact that if it doesn't, it runs the risk of being eclipsed by OpenStreetMap.

Also worth noting is the company that more than any other is helping OpenStreetMap do this:

Behind the scenes, spurring all this on, is Microsoft. Microsoft hired OpenStreetMap founder Steve Coast to work for Bing as Principal Architect for Bing Mobile. Coast works on both Bing and OpenStreetMap. In a blog post announcing Coast's hiring back in November 2010, Microsoft said Coast will "develop better mapping experiences for our customers and partners, and lead efforts to engage with OpenStreetMap and other open source and open data projects."

The Times reports that Coast is working on developing open-source software that will make it simpler for developers to get data from and use OpenStreetMap. And it also reports that Microsoft has been donating "valuable map data" to OpenStreetMap. Bing also uses OpenStreetMap data for its mapping service.

I really think this is one of the shrewdest things that Microsoft is doing at the moment (along with some pretty stupid stuff like fighting true open standards in the UK.) Location is going to become one of the key areas for future applications, as our position is used to modulate the information and services we receive on our main computing devices – smartphones. By supporting OpenStreetMap in this way, Microsoft is ensuring that Google does not end up in the centre of this particular spider's web. Call it payback for the damage inflicted by Google on Microsoft through its support for open source software.

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