A tale of two services
by Mary Branscombe
Mary Branscombe navigates around two powerful mapping services that partner, overlap, compete and could be confusing.
HardCopy Issue: 64 | Published: October 30, 2014
If you look on Bing Maps, the copyright notice credits both Microsoft and Nokia. If you pick up a Windows Phone 8 device, you see the HERE Maps app, but not a Bing Maps app. But when Microsoft bought Nokia’s devices business, the HERE map business wasn’t included. Despite appearances, and some very confusing explanations from Microsoft when Windows Phone 8 came out, Bing Maps and HERE maps aren’t the same – but they are connected.
What is now the Nokia-owned company HERE incorporates Navteq, a mapping provider that collected map data by driving LIDAR-equipped cars around the world. Navteq licensed the vector road maps, geocoded Points of Information (POI) database and other metadata it generated to a range of users, from phone vendors to handheld GPS systems to navigation apps like CoPilot, and to mapping services such as Bing Maps. When Nokia acquired Navteq and then brought it under the HERE umbrella, Microsoft kept its mapping licence. Then Nokia began making Windows Phone handsets and the relationship got closer, with the phone and maps teams collaborating to build some HERE features directly into Windows Phone 8.
The Nokia handset business that Microsoft acquired didn’t include HERE. However when the time came for Microsoft to renew its contract with HERE, it was allowed to make some changes to the licence, as Ricky Brundritt from Microsoft explains: “They allowed us to do more than we could before; for instance we used to have a lot of restrictions around how traffic data could be used and many of those are now lifted.”
So today Bing Maps continues to get map content such as roadmaps, traffic data, geocoding and venue maps from HERE. However Bing Maps is not just a copy of HERE because Microsoft also takes data from other suppliers, and doesn’t take all the features available from the HERE platform.
As Brundritt explains, “Navteq was our primary provider for roadmaps in the Americas, Australia and Europe – so we get maps from them for some places, but not everywhere.” Bing uses traffic data from HERE Maps for 35 countries, and gets venue maps and indoor maps from HERE as well, although Brundritt told us that it’s currently only using about half of HERE’s more than 10,500 venue maps. “The best way to think of HERE is as a data provider; as one of our main providers as our main markets are the Americas and Europe, but one of our many data providers.”
For South Korea, for example, the road maps in Bing Maps come from SK Planet, and Bing uses another map provider for Japan and another for Taiwan. Having multiple suppliers means Bing can get the highest resolution and most detail for each country. “For South Korea, SK Planet has far more detail, down to the numbers on buildings,” says Brundritt. Bing updated its South Korea maps last month, using the SK Planet data for maps with route-finding and address lookup.
Bing Maps and HERE both get aerial and satellite imagery from another provider, Digital Globe. In addition Bing has its own bird’s-eye imagery, which shows the landscape as if you were looking at it from a plane or high building rather than directly overhead. “We have bird’s-eye imagery for every major city in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and Taiwan, and we’re expanding that out,” says Brundritt. HERE offers Maps 3D which is even more sophisticated in that you can view the landscape from any angle. Maps 3D is currently available for 25 cities around the world, and again, more will be added.
Bing also licences the detailed Ordnance Survey maps for the UK. This doesn’t just give you a familiar map style with a lot of information; it also means you can overlay other Ordnance Survey-derived data onto Bing Maps without breaking the Ordnance Survey terms and conditions. “Most public sector organisations in the UK have this data for free and they can overlay without legal issues in terms of mixing data. Other map providers, like HERE and Google, don’t have that,” claims Brundritt.
Conversely, there is information in HERE that you won’t see through Bing Maps, such as the speed limits on the roads you’ll be driving down. Bing Maps does know the speed limit and the traffic speed, and uses that to estimate how long your journey will take, Brundritt says, but it doesn’t actually show you the speed limits for roads.
“We have a dual relationship with Bing,” explains HERE partner manager Jan Willem Baalbergen. “First we supply map content to them to develop Bing Maps; it’s based on our data and some of our platform, and they are our partner. In other cases we offer the HERE platform which is sometimes in competition with Bing, because they are also offering a platform.”
Not surprisingly, both companies believe they have the strongest service. “Bing Maps is a great platform because it has great maps, but ours is better because it has more functionality,” claims Baalbergen. “The main difference is the depth of the data and content. Of the 350 attributes we have connected to our segments, only a small portion are used by Microsoft in Bing Maps. We offer more APIs, more web services and more features through our HERE platform than Bing Maps.”
That includes not only speed limits but also lane markings and traffic signs, plus more specialist information for truck navigation. “We give you the information you need to manoeuvre a truck safely from A to B, both physical and legal information, so that you can plan your journey safely and know you’ll be avoiding obstacles.” That means you won’t get stuck on a narrow road or have to turn back when you encounter a low bridge or a bend too sharp for your vehicle. It’s also useful if you’re not a truck driver; “When it’s used with information like traffic patterns and real time traffic you can get very accurate delivery times for parcels,” he points out.
Bing Maps hasn’t added that kind of specialised information because “we haven’t been able to justify the cost,” explains Brundritt. He also points out that Bing Maps has APIs that aren’t available in HERE. For example you can call other Bing APIs such as image or news search (using a map as a user interface for getting local content) or speech recognition, speech synthesis and translation to ask for directions and have them read out to you, if necessary in a different language. You could also use Bing Translator to localise custom map content in applications, if you have more details than Bing’s own labels, place names and directions. Bing Maps is steadily adding features, too; you can use the new spatial queries to filter results by county, or show just results in the path of a predicted storm.
The emphasis at Microsoft is different in that Bing Maps isn’t just a platform for partners and external developers – it’s also a platform for Microsoft itself. “Bing Maps is one of our key tools, and we’re building it into just about every product,” Brundritt points out. You can get a map of an address in your email using Outlook, while Power Maps in Excel and Power View in SharePoint show your business information on a map. “Bing Maps being used [to add features] is something we’re likely to see continue in other Microsoft services and apps.”
Power Maps is also what he suggests for customers who were using Microsoft MapPoint, a vintage Microsoft mapping product that is now being retired: you can buy it until December 2014 and it will be supported until July 2015. Most users wanted either multi-point routes they can print out, which you can do free from the Bing Maps site, or to use the demographic data and overlays, both of which you can do with Power Maps, which comes with Office Professional Plus.
Both HERE and Bing Maps have options for businesses to get their own addresses into the maps. HERE has Map Creator which can be used for submitting Points of Interest, while bingplaces.com lets you add location information and extra data like opening hours. The Bing Ad team manages that program, with an option to pay to have your business highlighted on maps, but Bing’s new partnership with Yelp will also add richer location information about businesses.
Transport and time
Bing and HERE are also competing on lots of features. Bing Maps and HERE both have public transport information, so you can ask for a route by car, on foot or using buses and trains, but Bing doesn’t get that information from HERE. Instead both services go directly to the transit companies in each country.
Or take the concept of distance as a question of time rather than mileage. The HERE platform has tools apps that can use ‘drive time polygons’ to show you how far you can get if you drive for a certain time, and work is being done to tie that together with Cortana-style voice recognition. “I’ve only got five minutes, I want a coffee, just show me where I can go; there’s a lot of value in that,” explains Daniel Kraus from the HERE team.
Bing Maps doesn’t have that built in, but Microsoft partner iGeolize has a platform for time-based searches that works with Bing Maps to conduct polygon searches against your geolocated data. The Propertywide website uses that to let you find houses that are within your chosen travel time from your work address: you can even put in travel times for two people to two work addresses, using different kinds of transport.
Maps, apps and platforms
Not only are Bing Maps and HERE different, but each is available in different ways. Bing Maps is a service you can use to look at maps, search for addresses and get locations on the Bing website, and there are also Bing Maps apps for the Windows Store and Windows Phone. Although the Bing Maps app wasn’t pre-installed in Windows Phone 8, and you had to use a third-party app to get it back, it returns as Maps in Windows Phone 8.1.
Brundritt acknowledges the confusion that caused, especially because of the way it was communicated, but it wasn’t about pushing HERE Maps; it was about getting offline maps into Windows Phone more quickly. ”In order to get offline maps on Windows Phone, we couldn’t use Bing Maps data; we had to pull the data direct from HERE.” That means for Windows Phone 8 and 8.1, the mapping API in the Windows Phone SDK pulls offline maps from HERE, but if you have Bing Maps on the phone you get the offline maps in both apps. (That also means you only get the road maps HERE has for a territory, even if Bing has more detailed maps online.). “We’re investigating how we can improve the offline capabilities for Bing Maps in the future,” says Brundritt.
On iOS and Android the Bing Search App gets you maps and directions to an address, and Microsoft recently said it would bring many of the Windows Phone Bing apps, rebranded as MSN, to iOS and Android, which may well include a specific map app. There’s a new, experimental Bing Maps Preview App for the US, UK and Canada which lets you explore public transport routes and gives Windows 8 users high resolution street-level photography for 120 cities, as well as the Bing Get Me There transport app for London on Windows Phone.
HERE Maps is available as an app on Windows Phone, Windows 8.1, Nokia X, Samsung Galaxy phones and Tizen wearables like the Gear S, and there are some related apps such as HERE Transit and HERE Explore for getting public transport routes and recommendations of places to go, although so far only available for Windows Phone. HERE Maps has also released the first pieces of HERE’s LiveSight augmented reality technology on Windows Phone, which shows you information about what’s around you overlaid on live video from the phone camera.
Both services offer websites where you can browse maps, look up addresses and get directions, and synchronise routes and places with your device.
HERE’s approach to distribution has been to work with partners like Microsoft and Samsung and car manufacturers, so HERE Maps isn’t in the Google Play Store. However it does plan to have an iOS version of HERE Maps and a generic Android HERE app recently appeared in the Samsung Galaxy Store.
Both the Bing Maps and HERE Maps apps show you traffic density and give you directions, although only the Bing Maps app automatically adjusts routes to deal with traffic. However neither gives you live turn-by-turn driving directions, even on Windows Phone; for that you need the HERE Drive+ app. This includes alerts for traffic incidents like road accidents, and road speed warnings – including an audible beep if you’re driving faster than the speed limit.
But the place where most people might see maps from the HERE platform is in their car. According to HERE’s Daniel Kraus, “we’re in four out of five in-car navigation systems in North America and Europe.”
Developing with Bing and HERE
Both Bing Maps and HERE are platforms that developers can work with. For example, Apple is using Bing, including Bing Maps, in iOS as a search provider for Spotlight, while navigation apps like CoPilot use HERE because it includes particular information such as the overhead lane signs on motorways.
Baalbergen highlights the code playground on the HERE developer site, where developers can get scripting code that they can use live to build a proof of concept app without having to pay for a licence.
The Bing Maps APIs include 50,000 free transactions a day before you have to start paying, rather than the 10,000 per day that you get with HERE Maps (although 2D map tiles don’t count towards that total). When you do pay, Brundritt emphasises that the dedicated support that Microsoft offers makes a big difference to developers with phone and email support during both European and US business hours (8am to 2am GMT). “When we have customers migrating from competitors’ platforms, they say one of the main reasons they come back to us is technical support.”
So despite the co-operation and licences, Bing Maps and HERE Maps are definitely competing for users, and especially for developers. You might have to dig into the details to find out which best suits your needs, but that does give you a choice between two powerful mapping services.