Why are there so few global mapmakers?
Think about the last time you bought something. How much choice did you have? How many companies make the thing you bought? A handful? Tens? Thousands? Think about when you had to buy something for work, a new project management tool perhaps, how many options did you have? I still bet you had a decent amount of choice.
Rarely do we encounter purchase decisions where we have only a few choices. In consumer and business-to-business settings there is usually ample choice. That’s not the case in commercial mapmaking though, there are only a handful of enterprise-ready options.
TomTom CMO and Co-founder, Corinne Vigreux, recently asked some students of Codam — the software engineering school she founded in 2018 — how many mapmakers they think there are in the world. Their responses ranged from the hundreds to the thousands.
This massive overestimation of how many companies are in the mapping game isn’t uncommon. I asked some friends and family, and they said the same sort of thing.
Their wild guesses come as a result of underestimating just how complicated it is to make a digital map of the entire world. We’ve had maps for centuries, we’ve had digital maps for decades, we must be good at it by now. There must be hundreds of options, right? Wrong!
Pictured above is the Imago Mundi, a stone slab depicting the Babylonian map of the world. It’s considered the oldest surviving world map, dating back to around 700-500BC. We’ve come a long way from stone slabs, but making maps is still difficult.
How many commercial, global mapmakers are there?
The correct answer is four. Not hundreds. Four. There are only four truly global companies making maps of the world designed for commercial applications.
Importantly, when I say mapmaker, I’m talking about companies building maps from the ground up. Not just buying location data and then visualizing their own maps. True mapmakers take data from the source, process it, validate it and turn it into a map. There are indeed hundreds, if not thousands of companies, that take data from mapmakers and augment it for specific uses, but these are not making maps, they’re packaging and presenting them.
The mapmaking industry is quite unique. It’s not a monopoly — there is more than one provider. And even though there are only a few competitors in the market, it’s not an oligopoly — there’s no collusion, and competition between mapmakers remains high.
It’s perhaps quite surprising that more aren’t trying to enter the market when you consider the macro environment mapmakers operate in. The global location-based services industry is expected to hit $66 billion by 2028. Meanwhile, TomTom predicts the location tech market it works in (not including automotive) to grow from $2 billion to $2.5 billion in the next few years.
While we’ve witnessed good industry growth in the world of location data and forecasts for the coming decade are strong, we’ve not seen any notable changes in the makeup of commercial global mapmakers.
TomTom's new map. Coming together nicely.
Who are the world's global mapmakers?
Speaking strictly of companies that map for commercial purposes, there’s TomTom, then there’s Google, HERE and Apple.
Maps and location tech from these companies are used in everything from phones, to cars, to food delivery services, to ride-hailing apps, to telematics devices, to fleet management software and even insurance calculations.
We should give an honorable mention to OpenStreetMap (OSM). It’s one of the most powerful global mapping platforms to join the fray over the past decade. But OSM is unique among the other mapmakers. It’s not a commercial enterprise. Instead, it’s an open-source community effort, rather than a money-making business. Its data can be used by businesses, so long as it’s attributed and licensed correctly, even though that’s not necessarily what it’s designed for.OpenStreetMap is a wonderfully detailed and rich map of the world maintained by dedicated mappers from around the world.
For TomTom, OSM is not strictly a competitor in the list of global mapmakers. In fact, TomTom is using and working with OSM as a data source for its new map. Some companies, like Mapbox, have commercialized aspects of open-source software and can be considered competitors to TomTom for some things. But not for mapmaking. Mapbox doesn’t make its maps from the ground up; it’s reliant on OSM for its geospatial data.
So that’s it, there are five truly global mapmakers. Four of which are commercial enterprises.
Why aren't there more mapmakers?
Modern maps are built from a mountain of data. Inputs, such as data and edits, come from thousands of sources, which themselves are made up of many thousands more devices, probes and individual observations.
TomTom works with government agencies and carmakers from around the world, uses loops in the road, has its own mobile mapping (MoMa) vehicles, gathers data from satellite imagery and now works with OSM data, to name just a few of those sources. It also uses probe data from more than 600 million devices moving around the globe. It’s also built-up relationships with carmakers and data sources around the world, which have taken years to strengthen and cement.
Over its 30 years, TomTom has amassed an immense amount of knowledge about how to take input data, turn it into something meaningful and output a map or geospatial insight.
The challenge of modern mapmaking isn’t about generating data, it’s a challenge of data gathering, processing and maintenance, and turning it into meaningful output. It’s all about being able to find a reliable signal in a lot of noise.
If you don’t have the data, though, then there’s an even bigger mountain to climb.
What’s more, modern mapmaking is a never-ending process. It’s not enough to gather data once, because roads, addresses and allocation of space are continually changing. Mapmaking never ends.
The reality is, getting into, and staying in, the mapmaking game is incredibly expensive, resource intensive and time-consuming. If you want to put a number to it, think in the billions and be ready to watch that number rise.
Some try, few succeed: A case study of Big Tech’s go at mapping
It’s not as if others haven’t tried, though.
Mike Harrell, VP of Software Engineering TomTom Maps, who I spoke to in a previous article about how TomTom is sourcing data for its new Orbis Maps, used to work at Microsoft — one of the last big tech companies to give original mapping a go.
Over his eight years at Microsoft, Harrell led a team in Bing Maps, the Seattle-based tech company’s mapping division. Specifically, Harrell worked on the “development end of Microsoft’s Streetside program.”
Like most of the other mapmakers mentioned above, Microsoft’s Streetside program was a project to capture real world data and imagery and turn it into a 360-degree view of the surrounding world. The imagery captured was also used as a source to help “build a better map,” Harrell tells me. From images, Harrell and his colleagues were also able to extract lane information for roads and build a map.
Michael Harrell, VP Engineering, TomTom Maps.
With innovative algorithms Harrell and his team were able to map more efficiently, faster and with a high degree of accuracy. More so than what anyone else was doing at the time. But there was a catch: the cost.
While the map was high quality, it was only slightly better than the best alternatives of the time. And that improvement came at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, just for a map of the U.S. Mapping the entire world would run up a bill entering the billions. That’s not even acknowledging the time it takes to go out and gather the data to put through the algorithms. And of course, writing algorithms is one thing, they must constantly be fed new data to keep the map up to date.Bing Maps, Microsoft's consumer mapping application. Credit: Bing Maps.
In 2015, Microsoft sold off the division of its mapping business that was tasked with gathering original data. It sold it to ride-hailing upstart Uber, no less. In the same year, Uber also bought mapping startup deCarta for an undisclosed amount.
In 2016, Uber made further statements of intent, saying that it would “double down” on mapping tech. Brian McLendon, Uber’s Vice President at the time, wrote a blog post highlighting the specific demands Uber places on maps and that there were few options that offered the detail the company needed.
Even though Uber was investing a lot in its own mapping tech, it still relies on a number of industry partners for geospatial data.
TomTom announced in 2020 that it was deepening ties with the ride-hailing company. Uber continued integrating TomTom’s maps, traffic data and Maps APIs, and became a key editing partner of TomTom’s maps. There are various other articles that demonstrate Uber’s need, and reliance on, a broad use of mapping and location tech. It even made its own geospatial software tool, Kepler.gl.
The ride-hailing company has also used map services from other providers, paying a handsome $58 million for one. Though that pales in comparison to the $500 million Uber was reportedly going to spend to make its own map and the $3 billion it was allegedly ready to put down to buy HERE when Nokia was looking to sell.
The importance and value of location data to companies like Uber, but also the challenges they face in gathering and processing it, can’t be overstated.
Too much to do, not enough time
TomTom might be well known for its navigation devices, but beneath it all, it’s a mapmaker.
It maintains relationships and connections to major sources of data which can be used to make maps. In many cases, it’s not a technical challenge generating this data, but a business challenge of gaining access and building a relationship with who might generate the source.
While at Microsoft, Harrell proved that companies could catch up to what was already on the market, but not without incurring extreme expense. To do so, they also had to be incredibly innovative and daring, which is also rare in this industry.
Today, mapmakers are not spending time figuring out how to build maps from scratch. They’ve done that. TomTom figured that out a long time ago. What they are now having to adapt to is the fast-changing world and the increased demands being placed on maps and location data.
Harrell tells me that it’s a “literal tsunami of data coming in,” the best and smartest map will be made by the company that has the wherewithal to make as much use of this data as possible, and as quickly as possible.
Those that want to get into mapmaking face a mountainous challenge of time, resources and expertise. Which, for the vast majority, represents too great a barrier to entry.
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