At the intersection of the mobile and mapping aspirations of Apple, Microsoft, and Google lies an open project known as ‘OpenStreetMap.’ It is at once one man’s pipe dream writ real, a current pain in Google’s side, a Microsoft investment, and Apple’s current crutch. It might not receive much publicity, but OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a critical component of the modern technological landscape.

Starting back in 2004, OSM was an idea, one that wanted to provide geospatial data that anyone could use. The number of contributors grew, and slowly other sources of data were added. As the service became increasingly complete, it began to pick up big donors of data, such as Yahoo in 2006. Microsoft signed on in 2010, providing its aerial imagery to the project.

That is all old news by now. However, two companies recently picked up the service to provide data for their geolocational services. Two firms that you know the names of: Apple, and Foursquare. All of a sudden, OpenStreetMap isn’t just a worthy experiement, it’s a tool that the majors are using to avoid leaning on each other.

We’ll get to Microsoft’s involvement with OSM in a moment, but we must begin with Apple. Apple, long a user of Google’s mapping technologies in its mobile products, has made waves in recent months by buying a number of mapping companies. This was not a hard move to decipher: Apple wants off of Google’s technology, as the two companies are bitter mobile rivals.

However, while Apple is laying the foundation for its own, complete mapping system, it has turned to OSM. Our own Matthew Panzarino has the details:

After questioning the source of the map data in Apple’s new iPhoto for iOS app,OpenStreetMap has moved to end speculation and has revealed that the Cupertino-based technology giant has begun using its open-sourced mapping data instead of relying on its partnership with Google.

Writing on its official blog, OpenStreetMap said that it was “rather pleased to find they’re the latest to switch to OpenStreetMap,” adding that that Apple uses it own map tiles “made from OpenStreetMap data (outside the US).”

Interestingly, the team says that Apple has utilised an older version of OSM’s maps — which date back to April 2010 — so it warns users not to expect the “latest and greatest updates” to show on maps shown in the iPhoto for iOS app.

So, Apple is using OSM as a stand-in solution, until its own product is complete. Matthew explains again:

The long and short of it is that Apple now has, up and running and serving iOS devices, its very own map tile server, the core of any potential mapping service that it may want to use in the future. With a simple code change, and a new set of tile images that are more detailed, Apple could effectively replace Google as its mapping provider overnight.

And that, as they say is that. It’s quite simple to see why Apple would want to move away from Google’s mapping tools, but what about other users of the technology? Are they happy with what Google offers? As it turns out, Apple isn’t the only firm that is looking to get away from Google Maps.

The New York Times, ever the source of worthy journalism, compiled the complaints of a number of firms that have bucked under Google’s pricing scheme, leading them to move on:

In late February, Foursquare, the social media location service, said that on its Web site it would move from Google Maps to data from OpenStreetMap, a user-contributed map service that is created and managed much like Wikipedia. In a blog post, Foursquare said Google’s price increases had prompted the change.

Nestoria, a real estate search engine, also said it was leaving Google for OpenStreetMap because of the prices.

Tying this all together, we have Apple, perhaps Google’s largest user (given the popularity of iOS devices that have long employed Google Maps), and hot location-based startups, among others, leaving Google Maps, for OSM. We now turn to Microsoft.

How was it that OSM left its status as a project on the make, but one that was likely not ready for prime time, and become such a disruptive player? The answer, so far as I can tell, is Microsoft. Microsoft, in 2010, picked it as something to invest in, hiring one of its leaders, and giving it access to a huge quantity of data that it had collected. When Microsoft announced its hiring of Steve Coast, again the founder of OSM, this is how it described its contribution:

[W]e’re excited to announce a new initiative to work with the OpenStreetMap project, a community of more than 320,000 people who have built high quality maps for every country on earth.  Microsoft is providing access to our Bing Aerial Imagery for use in the OpenStreetMap project, and we have hired industry veteran Steve Coast to lead this effort.

As a Principal Architect for Bing Mobile, Steve will help develop better mapping experiences for our customers and partners, and lead efforts to engage with OpenStreetMap and other open source and open data projects.  As a first step in this engagement, we plan to enable access to Bing’s global orthorectified aerial imagery, as a backdrop of OSM editors. Also, Microsoft is working on new tools to better enable contributions to OSM.

That is a very broad mandate. The hiring of OSM’s founder aside, as an indicative element, here Microsoft states that it intended to ‘lead an effort’ to build better maps, by building ‘new tools’ for the project. It sounds like Microsoft decided that this was a horse that it wanted to back, and so it did.

TNW was not able to confirm by the time of publishing exactly if Bing Maps does currently employ OSM data. In the past, OSM data was used for a certain ‘app layer’ on Bing, but that appears to have been scrapped. I have a request for more information in with Microsoft, and will update this post upon hearing back. For what it is worth, PCWorld claims that “Bing also uses OpenStreetMap data for its mapping service.”

2012 03 27 16h25 42 520x287 Googles loss, Microsofts gain, and Apples passing fancy: Meet OpenStreetMap

While Microsoft did not comment on whether it employs OSM data currently, the company, via a spokesperson, did confirm to TNW that it provides data to the OSM project. Also, Microsoft declined to share any financial terms of the agreement between it and OSM.

To sum, Microsoft picked OSM in 2010 and juiced it with help, allowing it to grow into a credible second service option to Google Maps. Unwittingly, and we almost want to suspect subterfuge, Microsoft has helped to create a vehicle that siphons customers from Google. That and bring the likes of Apple on board, providing that rival with the assistance that it needed to move towards its own solution. With the help of Microsoft, OSM, in our view, is pinching Google, letting Apple rest for a pit stop, and is providing a new path forward for geolocation-focused startups.

There you have it: the behind the scenes view. Now the real question: did Microsoft plan all this, or did it simply happen?

Update: Bing got back to us, and stated that they use no OSM data whatsoever.