Beating the Block: How to take on Google Maps

B-2_spirit_bombingJune 17, 2013: In November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, symbolically ending the Cold War. Two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved, leaving the United States as “the world’s only superpower”. In the decade that followed, no other country could come close to the military power of the U.S.

Notwithstanding, in January, 1997, the US Air Force launched the B-2 bomber, the most advanced military bomber in history. It is capable of penetrating deeply into Soviet airspace…combatting a threat which no longer exists.

I thought of that when Google bought Waze last week.

OK, so the analogy is a little stretched, but the point is that today Google is the world’s only mapping superpower.  No one is close and they’re pulling away.  Yet last week, they beat out several possible rivals to pull the trigger on a $1B acquisition for Waze, a company which, while very innovative, had assets that largely overlapping with Google’s existing capabilities. Google just added more firepower to win a war that everybody else seems to be afraid to fight.

Last week I explored why they bought Waze. I think it’s a blocking move, to keep others from getting Waze’s proprietary map data and team. That would have been a good starting point for a competitor.

Now I am thinking about how to beat that block; how the rest of the world might compete with Google Maps.

Option 1: Frontal Assault (aka The Dumb Way)

One way to compete with G-Maps is to just go at them, match them feature for feature,and take share from them. Continuing the tortured military analogy, this would be the equivalent of conventional war…head on, army against army on the field of battle (cue flags flying and drums rolling).

For my friends who do not live in America, let me tell you a secret: We Americans like this strategy. It’s dramatic. It makes great television. And we win. Always. Ask Saddam Hussein (next time you see him). But this seems to be the way most people think about going after Google Maps. And they lose. Always. It doesn’t matter if they are small start-ups or big companies. They lose. At best they build a version that looks kind of like Google, but not as good. You can make that list yourselves.

Option 2: Guerrilla Warfare

al-QaedaWe Americans are less excited about the type of war we are fighting now against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  It goes on and on. It costs a lot of money. It is not good television; in fact we rarely report it except on page 26 in the paper. We’re not sure we are winning or will have made a difference once we’re gone. The fact is, these al-Qaeda guys are doing a pretty good job against the world’s only superpower.  (Note: I’m not talking here about the pros and cons of this war. It’s not my topic or expertise. I’m just making an illustration. Spare me the hate mail).

So the obvious question (to me at least) is: “What would al-Qaeda do if they were fighting Google for map dominance?” Asked another way, how would you change the game to even the odds against such a strong competitor?

Three Ways to Even the Odds

  1. Fight with a Mission: I don’t begin to understand al-Qaeda’s mission for the world, but it seems they have one. You don’t strap a suicide belt on without having a mission for something bigger. Google has a mission: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Location is one way to organizing and accessing that information. Google invests in maps, local search, navigation and now Waze because they are fulfilling that mission of organizing the world’s information. Everyone else is just building a mapping app. That’s it. No vision. No one is going to compete with Google unless they have a similar mission that drives their goals in location.
  2. WaterlooNeutralize their Strengths: al-Qaeda doesn’t launch waves of troops in neat rows at us. They take advantage of their strengths (mainly home-court advantage in Afghanistan)  to mitigate the US military superiority. Google Maps has a lot of strengths: great team, excellent distribution through the Google search, strong ad model, proprietary map data and so on. To compete, you need to neutralize at least some of those advantages. OSM is one possible game changer. Assuming it can overcome its issues (geocoding, license ambiguity and completeness), it shifts the competitive advantage from data ownership to services delivery. That neutralizes an advantage that Google has spent hundreds of millions of dollars building.  As a potential competitor to Google, do you start your own new map database or join to build out OSM? That’s the type of thinking it will take to match Google: how can you neutralize the seemingly invincible strengths that they have. Map data isn’t the only area: distribution, business model, partnerships…all have possible strategies. There’s room for a lot of creativity here, but today I don’t see people exercising that.
  3. Pick Your Battleground: It’s no accident that al-Qaeda picks most of its fights up in the mountains  where they minimize their exposure, have access to safety across the border and have an intelligence advantage over the US. Google is really strong in the local search market. It is pretty hard to win there.  But there are other areas where they could be more easily challenged.  I think enterprise is one. Social search is another. Picking the right area to develop a beachhead is key to getting traction.

<painful experience>I have no illusions that it would be easy to carve out an place in on-line mapping against Google</painful experience>. They have an excellent team, lots of resources, vision and momentum. But that’s exactly why those who would compete (and I hope their are some out there) need to be a lot more creative than they now are.

It would be good for the industry and good for Google.


  • To the NSA: I do not know anyone in al-Qaeda. I do not send them e-mails or even Christmas cards. I sure don’t call them on my cell phone. I do not know if they have any intention to launch an on-line mapping platform or even if they like cartography. I love America. Please do not wire-tap my phone. And no drone strikes. Seriously.
  • Note #1 above not withstanding, I do think the world would be a better place if al-Qaeda would lay down their arms and take up cartography.  Perhaps they could start hosting OSM mapping parties in the Hindu Kush.  Links here and here if interested.


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