Soon you will be able to query Google's vast database of local businesses. The company has just announced Nearby Places, a Google Maps widget and a web service, with its eye on providing data to users on the go.
Perhaps an even more exciting part of Places is its web service. The Google Places API will provide data via XML or JSON. The result is that the data can be used with a little more freedom. For example, you could manipulate results server-side, or use them in a native mobile application. However, as with all Google Maps web services, the terms require that a user-facing Google Map be used at some point in the process. Yahoo's has had a local search web service for several years with terms that seem less strict.
The web service also won't be available until July, but developers can apply now, giving Google use cases and traffic estimates. This is a huge change from Google's recent pattern of providing anonymous access to its web services. The company claims the reason is the risk of scraping, since business listings are viewed as valuable data.
With the rise of mobile applications, especially location-sharing apps like FourSquare, many are calling for calling for an open place database. Could Google's business listings provide a unique ID, similar to Yahoo's Where On Earth ID for cities and countries? It's not exactly open, but with Google behind a database developers will be less fearful that the data will go away. However, the strict terms of service may make this a non-starter. I still expect there will be at least one viable attempt at an open place database this year. And it's already competing with Google before it starts.