Why we make maps

Maps have always been about controlling commerce.

map bookIn June 2012, the first shots were fired in the latest battle in the Apple-Google tech war. After including Google Maps on its handheld devices for five years, Apple announced its new operating system would jettison the software in favour of a program of its own. Apple Maps, the company promised, was “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.”

The results were instantly, famously disastrous. Using the new app, people looking for a Florida hospital were directed instead to a supermarket; unsuspecting navigators looking for Washington Dulles airport were instructed to attempt dangerous and possibly illegal maneuvers on the road; and tourists in Australia looking for the city of Mildura were led to the middle of a national park, where they would have been stranded without food or water.

Apple CEO Tim Cook issued an apology a week later. In December, Google released an updated maps app for the iPhone that was clearly light-years ahead of Apple’s. It jumped to the top of the iTunes store’s download charts. Apple’s pre-emptive strike in the mapping wars had badly misfired.

The Apple-Google scuffle was the latest in a long history of map wars. Reading through the scattered anecdotes in Simon Garfield’s new book On the Map, it’s clear that cartographers have been fighting to control the map market for centuries. That’s because, perhaps more than any other product that has ever been bought and sold, maps are a powerful and profitable source of information about the world around us. As Garfield writes, today’s digital maps are “increasingly becoming what they had been in the age of the Spanish conquistadors—guarded, proprietary and inestimably valuable as routes to further riches.”

The idea of a working map—a simple instrument that leads a person from Point A to Point B, ideally without stranding them in an Australian wilderness—seems so intrinsic to human civilization, it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. But after breakthroughs from Ptolemy and the Ancient Greeks, the idea of accurately charting our world went strangely out of fashion. In the Middle Ages, maps were more representational and allegorical than accurate, as Garfield recounts in the story of the sprawling Hereford Mappa Mundi. Created in the 13th century, this bedspread-sized map charted a good Christian’s path through the world, but wouldn’t be much help if you were looking for directions to the next town.

It wasn’t until the age of exploration, with sailors setting off for distant corners of the globe, that accurate maps and charts became vital—and truly valuable. In 1580, Francis Drake completed his circumnavigation of the globe and returned to England with a cargo full of riches. Hoping to deny rival countries knowledge of Drake’s route, Queen Elizabeth demanded that his journey remain off all maps, and for nine years British cartographers complied.


Google Maps circa 500 B.C.

This early map show Babylon at its centre, surrounded by a “river of bitter” water (i.e., the ocean).

By the 17th century, maps had completed the transformation from an obscure, intellectual pursuit into a commercial industry. In Amsterdam, a young bookseller and maritime cartographer named Willem Blaeu began creating terrestrial maps to supplement his income. Battling with another Dutch publisher to control a growing market, Blaeu sought to create maps that were bigger and more sumptuous than his rival’s.

Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, finally completed by Blaeu’s son in 1672, was published in 11 volumes, with 594 beautifully rendered maps with pages of text explaining each country’s history. It was the most stunning work of cartography ever seen, writes Garfield: “Everything that followed it—right up to the present day—seems a bit of an anticlimax in comparison.”

The attempt to hold so much of the world’s geographical information in one atlas was bold, but entirely impractical. The potted histories, for instance, were embarrassingly simplistic (Scotland was known for “the excellence of the minds that it produces”), and at the equivalent cost of approximately $40,000, the book was more trophy item than practical guide to the world.

Today, however, digital map-makers are attempting far more ambitious creations than Blaeu could have imagined. Garfield argues that the Internet and GPS have transformed the world of cartography more than any innovation since the ancient Greeks. Google’s goal is not just to map every street in every city, but every house on every street and, eventually, for all we know, every room in every house and every tree in every forest.

And, like Drake’s closely guarded route, these new digital maps have the potential to lead their owners to vast riches. Today, the market for map apps is worth approximately $625 million according to Opus Research, which is small potatoes compared to the future revenue streams mapping software opens up.

As the bulk of computing moves mobile, the map is what links us to myriad location-based services on our devices. Maps tell us how to get from one place to another, but are also integrated with more profitable information—where our friends are, whether a store nearby is having a sale, where our favourite ice cream is sold.

And most important, with digital maps, the distribution of information goes both ways. Our mapping software tells us how to find a coffee shop, but we increasingly allow it to track our movements as we enjoy our latte and take it to a nearby shoe store. The map in our pocket knows where we live, the restaurants we eat at, the shops we frequent. It’s a marketer’s dream tool. It’s easy to imagine future location-based advertising becoming more and more profitable and specific, with a map finding your favourite restaurant but also delivering an ad that suggests a bar down the road.

So despite losing the first battle, Apple isn’t likely to bow out of the map business any time soon. Like the map wars between rival explorers, Apple will join other tech companies in a race to create grander and more accurate renderings of the world around us. Satellites and cameras will continue to chart our physical world, and our maps themselves will create highly personal and ever-expanding atlases of each consumer’s preferences and desires—maps to the riches of an as-yet undiscovered world.