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Impact - A Blog by INM

MapQuest's Vulnerability: Richer Internet Application Urgently Needed

October 14, 2007 by Vahe Kassardjian

MapQuest was the first meaningful online application that I ever saw. I remember very clearly my ah-ha! moment. It was in 1996.

I found MapQuest meaningful because it was rich. As rich as it could get then. It provided information that one could fathom in a glance, in a time where most websites insisted on providing long scrolling texts vastly inspired by the computer terminal mentality.

In the years to follow, MapQuest enjoyed the undisputed status of being "the mapping standard" on the Internet, despite vigorous attacks from Microsoft, Yahoo! and many others.


Then, in 2005, Google Maps came along and started eating serious market share from MapQuest. Although MapQuest still has more traffic than Google Maps today, its user base has been eroding steadily whereas Google Maps' is in high-speed growth. Now, less than three years after going online, Google Maps gets about 2/3 of MapQuest's traffic.

The reason for this, according to Forrester Research is that Google Maps offers an interface that treats users with a little respect.

Forrester's research also found that, because Google Maps offered a superior user experience, customers' perceptions were that Google Maps was more accurate than MapQuest and Yahoo! But this was only a perception: All three online mapping sites got their data from the same source.

A similar (though bolder) observation is made by Jason Fried from 37 Signals (developers of BasecampBakpack and Ruby on Rails) in Google Maps proves "It's the experience, stupid".

Last Friday, MapQuest finally revealed its secret weapon to keep its leadership position:A new application rebuilt from the ground up to deliver better user interfaces.

The lesson (re)learned here is that the IT industry is the fastest one ever experienced in the history of the world, and the one that produces more disruptive innovations than humans are accustomed to. Market leadership can very quickly topple as we've all witnessed with WordPerfect vs MS Word, Lotus 1-2-3 vs MS Excel, Palm vs Blackberry, MySpace vs Facebook and numerous other cases.

In order to survive the last 30 years, software publishers had to foresee the PC revolution and move away from developing on mini-computers. They had to foresee that MS-DOS was the winning alternative, not CP/M or Apple DOS. They had to move from MS-DOS to Windows in due time, support cross-platform file compatiblity, TCP/IP (not Novell Netware, which was to market leader), and embrace client/server architecture and the Internet wave, just to name a few.

Where do the threats and opportunities of the future lie? There are strong indications about Rich Internet Applications, social networks and user generated content, Software as a Service, Mobile devices with larger displays and geolocation, and more.

Mapquest's next bet is on a Rich Internet Application.

What will yours be?