Ihor
Feoktistov
CTO at Relevant

Choosing a Map API for Your Next App: Mapbox vs OpenStreetMap vs Google Maps

#Tech label

When Marco Polo was about to embark on a journey along the Silk Road, he needed a reliable cartography specialist, even though his dad and uncle were by your side. Just like him, you need a ready-to-use map API for your app. Making the right choice among the available ones shouldn’t be a gamble, and it is exactly what we will help you with. 

There has long been a battle between the three mapping API rivals: Mapbox vs. Google Maps vs. OpenStreetMap (OSM). So, take a seat and get your popcorn: we’re going to tell you about their pros and cons, similarities and differences, prices, and how to choose the right map API for your app. And don’t miss the last part, where we share Relevant’s experience with them.

Mapbox vs. Google Maps vs. OpenStreetMap 

Sure, there are other integration APIs available to app developers, but these three represent the most robust and flexible options.

Mapbox

Founded in 2010 to supply non-profit environmental and humanitarian organizations with map data and analysis, Mapbox has evolved into a full-fledged industry giant. Providing custom map tools and location data to large players like Facebook, Snapchat, and Foursquare, the company also keeps the needs of local entrepreneurs in mind. And even though the services aren’t free anymore, Mapbox stays true to its open-source origins, releasing code and contributing to numerous mapping libraries and applications.

Mapbox offers a comprehensive set of features and tools for integrating its map services into any website or mobile app. With the help of Mapbox Studio, customers can create unique designs to blend maps seamlessly into their products.

Whether you need data visualization, turn-by-turn navigation, logistics control, or store locator functionality, Mapbox has your back, giving you carte blanche to create a map with the right look and feel for your application.

Google Maps

Although it seems like Google Maps has been around since the beginning of time, it’s no brontosaurus when it comes to updating data and providing new functionality. Especially when changing its  pricing policies—but we’ll get to that later. 

The GMP, or Google Maps Platform, boasts 99% coverage of the world and over 1 billion active monthly users. It has long been the industry standard for map integration used by Bolt, Uber, Allianz, and many other large and smaller businesses.

By leveraging the fleet of its satellites, Street View cars, and Android devices, as well as engaging local contributors, GMP provides massive amounts of in-depth and accurate data with real-time updates. And the products—Maps, Routes, and Places—are meant to cater to the needs of any industry, if the business can handle the price.

OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap is a community-powered project that supplies numerous websites and apps with its map data. Being an open-source map, it is completely free to use, yet maintains a high level of accuracy and detail thanks to the efforts of the local map enthusiasts and engineers who populate it with data and support it. In fact, it is so good that Mapbox uses OSM as the backbone for its maps.

Mapbox: Pros and Cons

The people at Mapbox have been building their product with a focus on customization and easy integration, and the company’s work has received some well-deserved praise:

“Mapbox has embraced a forward-thinking, developer-focused platform-approach that leverages live location, whereas much of the competition is merely providing customers with static maps,” said Brent Idarola, Vice President of the Mobile and Wireless Team at Frost & Sullivan, in an article that recognizes Mapbox as the 2019 North American Platform of the Year. 

He later adds: “Overall, the platform fundamentally enhances opportunities for application developers to deliver highly customizable experiences that push the creative envelope.” 

But does Mapbox live up to the hype? We’ll let you decide for yourself.

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Pros

  • Customization and flexibility. When it comes to design and development, the freedom you get with Mapbox Studio and Mapbox API is hard to beat. Adding objects and choosing the layers to be displayed, changing colors and fonts – all of this can be done with a few clicks, and the resulting map is always a sight to behold.
  • Fast load times and great performance, especially with larger arrays of data. Thanks to the tileset architecture and the optimization of Mapbox GL JS, you can expect your integrated map to load quickly and render smoothly, particularly if you’re dealing with complex sets of data.
  • Offline Mode in the API. Unlike some of the competition, Mapbox offers full support of its features in offline maps, and there is no cap on the number of tiles that can be downloaded. This is extremely helpful when data connection can’t be established or isn’t justified — as is the case with international travel, hiking, or simply when you need to optimize the map load speed.
  • The open-source approach. Mapbox releases its code and encourages the community to inspect and improve it. Another hidden benefit lies in the use of Mapbox GL Native – a library that allows inserting customizable interactive maps into native apps on iOS and Android.
  • Standardized data handling. Working with Mapbox’s very strict internal rules of data management takes some getting used to, but it pays off in the long run – and your developers will appreciate it for sure!

Cons

  • Inferior map coverage in certain regions. Mapbox relies on collective mapping, with OpenStreetMap being its major source of data, and this has consequences. While the OSM project has enjoyed remarkable growth over the past ten years, its coverage in regions like India and China still needs some work. 
  • There is a learning curve with Mapbox API, and it will take some time for the developers to learn the ropes of the environment, the data flow and standardization, in particular. But that’s only true for those lacking prior experience with Mapbox – and Relevant Software has plenty. 

Google Maps: Pros and Cons

There is a reason Google Maps enjoys the largest presence across platforms and devices, compared to other mapping solutions, and there’s more than just one. However, some things could be improved, too.

Pros

  • Instantly recognizable. Most smartphone and computer users are familiar with the interface of Google Maps, which is likely to create a sense of inherent trust when interacting with the version built into your app.
  • Excellent global and local data quality. Over the years of its existence, Google Maps has conquered an unprecedented area with its mapping services and collected unfathomable volumes of information on the local level.
  • Multi-language support. GMP currently supports over 80 languages, and the list is growing.
  • Street View. Added to the mobile edition of Google Maps in September 2019, this feature is a unique offering not found with any other mapping service. You might never need it in your particular use case, but if you do – slim will be your pickings.

Cons

  • Few options for customization. Although the new custom styles are being rolled out as beta, Google Maps API currently supports limited options for creating a unique look for your integrated maps.
  • Not an open-source API. We could try and guess whether it’s because Google requires no help from the developers’ community, or the corporation is holding on to the right to implement certain features without external consent, but that’s the way things are.
  • Unpredictable changes in pricing. The 2018 Google Maps API price hike has made waves among the loyal user base. An excellent service like this deserves to be monetized and should be profitable, but customer trust is another currency worth saving.

OpenStreetMap: Pros and Cons

The OSM project can be used as a great data source, and has a couple of up- and downsides to consider.

Pros

  • The OpenStreetMap API is free. No added expenditures for your business here.
  • An open-source map, and proud of it. A large number of contributors passionate about mapping ensures steady growth of the database.

Cons

  • Requires creating additional services. The API has been developed for the purpose of updating and editing maps and has very basic functionality. You will either have to create the necessary infrastructure on-premise or use ready all-round solutions (such as Mapbox) that are based on the OSM data.
  • Limited number of queries. Due to the nature of the project, excessive exchange of data through the API is not welcome, and users may get blocked without notice when making too many data requests.

Mapbox, Google Maps, and OpenStreetMap Pricing

It’s time to talk about a major pain point – the price you’ll have to pay for all the bells and whistles. As you remember, OpenStreetMap API is free, so we’ll only talk about the two that don’t shy away from making a profit.

While Google Maps and Mapbox use complex and often similar pricing models, there is one important distinction in the billing approach: Google measures usage exclusively in requests, and Mapbox has an option of accounting for individual users. 

Depending on your usage scenario and the methods applied to integrate maps into your app, Mapbox offers different pricing options for you to choose from, whereas Google Maps has a unified pricing approach that centers around their server load.  

Both companies provide monthly discounts: Google in the form of a $200 credit, and Mapbox – in user interactions or API requests, with up to free 750,000 API calls in some categories. 

Of course, you’ll be able to estimate overall usage costs only when you have a clear vision of the integrated map use cases, as well as the approximate number of users per month. But even at this point, it looks like Mapbox will have a price advantage (especially for more data-intensive projects), and your savings will only increase with the growth of the user base.

What Do the Three APIs Have in Common?

As the OpenStreetMap API has very limited standalone functionality for integration with other apps, perhaps it’s best to turn our eyes to the commonalities shared by Google Maps and Mapbox.

These two need to serve the same needs of their customers, which dictates the similarity in tools. Let’s glance through some of the features that both APIs support:

  • Core map functionality. Static and dynamic maps, accurate and in-depth geographic and local data in various selectable views, ability to add markers, polygons, and images.  
  • Navigation. Real-time directions that account for traffic, route optimization, and time of arrival estimation.
  • Local information. Detailed information on places and points of interest.
  • Advanced search options. Automatic prediction and correction, location-based suggestions.

The list goes on, but aren’t you even more curious about what sets these APIs apart?

The Key Differences Between Google Maps, Mapbox, and OpenStreetMap

In our humble opinion, the main differences between the three APIs can be expressed through the following characteristics:

  • Customization. Mapbox seems to lead here, with Google Maps scoring slightly lower, and OSM being the clear outsider. 
  • Operating expenses. Well, OpenStreetMap wins this one by a landslide! With the other two, you’d have to be really careful when comparing costs for the same use case, but we’d still give the edge to Mapbox in most instances.
  • Feature value. That’s a close call (though, not for OSM). With Mapbox vs. Google Maps, you’d be looking at very specific features that your integrated map service requires, as both contestants are well equipped for most tasks. 
  • Ease of integration. Again, this will depend largely on the experience your designers and developers have with the respective APIs and their SDKs. Some will favor Google Maps due to their popularity, and others – like the teams at Relevant Software – will be comfortable working with all three APIs.

Choosing a map API

Comparing the three toolsets based on the above criteria will help organize your thoughts, but if choosing the right solution for your business is your goal, we recommend answering these questions:

What map functionality do I need for my type of business?

Are you a service company that needs its operators to drive frequently to many locations for maintenance and repair? Use Google’s advanced navigation algorithms, but don’t forget about the absence of the offline mode in the GMP API. 

Are you building an online sales platform, and keeping track of your deliveries is vital to your workflow? Take a minute and learn from Shopify’s story.

Need basic map integration – an embedded static map to provide your customers with simple location services? Feel free to use OpenStreetMap, but keep in mind that you will need to create the core infrastructure around its API.

Or do you need to aggregate and visualize large amounts of data to turn it into actionable insights? Well, Mapbox has some competence in that area. 

How large is my user base now, and what growth am I expecting?

Make an approximation, set a goal, or dream away – these numbers will still be helpful in predicting your usage matrix and what discounts you can expect from each of the players (maybe you’ll fit within the free tier limits). Also, this will influence the quantity and quality of data your app will have to process, which will be crucial when choosing the API with the best practices of data management. 

Where does my business operate geographically?

You can look through each API’s online documentation and find out which platform has better coverage in your area. Mapbox, for instance, is quite honest about the quality of their traffic data in different countries

Does the open-source model appeal to me?

This can be an important point of divergence for some or a non-issue for others – something to look at from both the ethical and practical perspective.

Relevant’s Experience with Mapbox

Ok, let’s admit: we like Mapbox. But that doesn’t mean Relevant Software is biased in its choices when it comes to map APIs. Developing custom software is what we do best, and the client’s needs are always our priority.

Here’s what we can do with OpenStreetMap.

MapMan is all about making sales more fun (and increasing efficiency along the way), and to achieve that, we had to gamify the process. By implementing a new CRM platform and a system of ranks and bonuses for employees, we were able to reduce paperwork, incentivize the personnel, and provide management with the tools for tracking KPIs. The map functionality really came in handy when assigning agents to select territories.

TableZ is another success story. Our teams decided to integrate Google Maps services into the app, as it was a better match to the customer’s requirements than other APIs.

TableZ is a restaurant booking platform, now working tirelessly in Qatar. The main challenge was to create an interface intuitive enough to win the hearts of restaurant managers with little to no experience in tech. The platform provides the customer with an interactive map, keeps track of reservations, and helps restaurants manage their workflow in the most efficient manner.

And then there’s Airthings from Norway.

When a company that creates indoor radon monitoring systems asks for a solution to process data from their IoT devices around the globe, you just can’t refuse. When they tell you they need that data aggregated and visualized in real-time, you start scratching your head. And then Mapbox comes to the rescue.

With its highly customizable tiles, robust data management, and optimized rendering, Mapbox proved to be the perfect choice for creating a data-intensive application with lag-free user experience. Any other API would likely be overwhelmed by the sheer number of IoT sensors on the map, but Mapbox’s clustering feature allowed us to stay up to speed on the load times.

Airthings is now in possession of a global system of radon monitoring. The multifunctional dashboard is responsive and user-friendly, the air quality alerts work in real-time, and the company’s customer base grows daily. 

Like what you see?  Read more of our client stories here

The Bottom Line

Choosing the right mapping API for your needs is tough, but you don’t have to tackle this problem on your own. Finding a reliable partner who will care about your cause and help you find the best path to your goals could be a good start.

At Relevant Software, we’ve been through storms, and we’ve seen sunny days, but we always reach the destination, because we have a fantastic crew. The crew that has ample experience in integrating various map APIs into applications, and is sure to help you with your app. Contact us anytime.

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Written by
Ihor Feoktistov
CTO at Relevant
I make sure our clients get the highest code quality and the best tech talent on the market. I am also a Software Engineering Advisor for startups. Let's connect.

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