If there is one good example of how competition begets innovation and improvement, online mapping tools definitely fits the bill.  When I first starting online mapping tools, the most popular option was Mapquest.  Later, Yahoo! managed to steal some thunder from Mapquest by improving somewhat on the user experience and providing additional features such as nearby businesses. However, both of them still had a pretty poor interface based on static pages which made panning and zooming a slow and painful experience.  As Ajax caught on, Google came up with their mapping tool and revolutionised the interface.  You could easily and quickly pan by just dragging the map with the mouse and you didn’t have to wait for the page to refresh.

Microsoft jumped onto the online services bandwagon and introduced local.live.com which was an improvement to Google Maps to some extent. It let you put pushpins on the map to identify places.  It was also the first to provide fly-by views of major metropolitan areas.  Yahoo! upgraded their mapping tool when they went with an interactive Flash-based application.  Yahoo! also provided live traffic reports which were later adopted by the others.  Right now, the three major players keep tweaking and improving their tool by providing new and cooler features while improving on the others.

I am personally a fan of Google Maps because of its speed which is so far unmatched by anyone else.  Google still lags a little in the feature set, but it more than makes up in the implementation.  Also, Google has done a great job in opening up the API which has results in innumerable mashups that have spawned tons of other applications.  The latest feature of Google Maps is street view for the big metropolitan areas in the US.  You can spend hours virtually walking through the streets of New York!  A9 (an Amazon company) was the first to provide something similar but it was hampered by the poor interface and later A9 gave up on mapping entirely.  Microsoft’s Live has also added this but again, using a rather clumsy race-car view metaphor.  Though Google has the propensity of using the worst possible colours on its pages, it does a great job of providing the easiest-to-use interface possible with the current technology.

If it hadn’t been for the stiff competition between the major online service providers, mapping would have remained much like it used to be in 2001.  It is good to see such rapid improvement which helps the customers and the providers themselves.