I have to confess to not being a believer in internet utopia. It’s nice to think that our world is begin developed by wonderful clever young people who are dedicated to create an open world in some sort of geeky way. But our hardware and software heroes at Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter are — as the tech writer Evgeny Morozov reminds us — are part of giant multinational ventures who have to worry as much (if not more) about their institutional investors than about us. We might receive a notionally free service but, of course, our global service providers are looking to sell us advertising and, also in many cases, to sell us to their advertisers.
Sometimes these issues rear their head here as they did recently with the discussion about the new Ordnance Survey App (see the discussion here). The puzzling thing about the OS Map project is that it seemed to deliberately undercut the work of their more innovative partners, such as Viewranger, who sell a fair amount of OS maps. According to those in the industry OS are intending to continue the development copying yet more of the features from their pioneering partners.
The OS is no stranger to controversy not least because it is a public funded organisation that straddles the commercial world. Many have been angered that OS data — created by public funds is not an open public resource. Some argue that OS seem intent with charging us twice, once through the public purse and again through commercial charges. Just what kind of organisation is the OS? And does its size and public funding effectively mean that it can distort markets, and increasingly important emerging markets at that.
I just found the whole OS Mobile App thing a little confusing. My main concern that this would not be part of a core business and that those who bought their Smartphone apps this way might find the service is not properly supported or developed over time. But my eyes have been opened by a chance result of a web search.
The Ordnance Survey IOS App was developed by M & C Saatchi’s Mobile division, Saatchi Mobile. ( You can read about this here and on Saatchi Mobile’s own site. M & C refers to Maurice and Charles Saatchi and MC Saatchi is an international advertising business (Saatchi and Saatchi still exists as an independent business).
Saatchi is, of course, an advertising and marketing company. Their main interest is in generating income through advertising and Saatchi Mobile seems to exist to drive advertising revenue for them and their clients over mobile platforms.
So, is this simply another variant of the free internet/mobile service being funded through advertising revenue? Well not not really and here is the issue. The OS App is free but users still have to pay commercial prices for their apps. The OS App has been popular and the company already has a decent user base. So while the OS is generating a lot of new income from mobile map sales can it not simply rely on this to finance its mobile offering?
It would be no surprise if Saatchi’s tactics are to drive advertising and marketing sales through the OS map, after all this is what the company exists to do. How will this work? Well, perhaps those who purchase maps and tiles for, say, the Lake District will be presented with adds for Cumbrian pubs, restaurants and other businesses? Maybe, train operators will be accessing the infrastructure to urge you to take the train — it’s a fair bet you will be interested in travelling to the Lake District if you’ve just bought Lake District Map. And so it goes.
As a consumer I regularly have the choice between choosing a free service that is funded by advertising or by purchasing a Pro version which switches off those ads. Are the OS about to launch a third option, an app which you have to pay commercial prices to use and which then also bombards you with advertising?
Personally, I find all of this quite worrying. I genuinely don’t like the idea of the OS using its monopoly position (for that is what it will become very quickly) to simply suck in more money. Perhaps, the OS long term business plans depend on the generation of an increasing percentage of their income from sales and a reducing reliance on the public purse for their core activities but I don’t know that. And anyway, do we really want a commercially drive Ordnance Survey.
But I suspect the people that may loose the most may be those punters that have bought the app. If it becomes difficult to generate funds through commercial advertising will Saatchi Mobile stick around? Will the app continue to be supported over time let alone be developed? We already have a problem of some computer app companies offering mapping that is well out of date and we already have mapping software companies that very rarely, of ever, seem to offer updates to their applications.
Is this a positive move or one which could become bad news for all of us?
What does the team think?