Yahoo Maps API: So Long, Old Friend

These days it might be hard to remember that the Yahoo Maps API was ever second fiddle to the Google Maps API. These days, it barely picks up its fiddle. And in less than two weeks, Yahoo will lift its once-mighty mapping API above its head and bang the fiddle repeatedly into the stage like Pete Townshend. The remnants, barely held together with strings and the crumpled instrument neck, will then go in some dumpster in Sunnyvale. It's okay, after all, because Nokia's Ovi Maps API will be a fine replacement. It's only the nostalgic, like me, who'll have any problem with seeing the Yahoo name disappear.

Apartments on Yahoo MapsIt was Google Maps that birthed the mashup before anyone had a mapping API like what we know today. But Yahoo saw the opportunity and released its API the same week as Google. Yahoo's version required Flash, which was a set-back, but it quickly came up with its own slick Ajax version. Then it iterated. In 2006 and 2007, there was arguably more happening with Yahoo Maps updates than Google's.

Even a year ago, when my map API book was published, Yahoo still seemed worthy of getting second billing as I showed off the Mapstraction API and how it can switch between mapping providers. Again, it may have been nostalgia, but I think it's more about the perception that Yahoo was perpetually about to do great things with geo. "There was tons of potential there," Tyler Bell said when I called to commiserate. Bell was on the Yahoo geo team from 2007-2009 and currently is Director of Product at Factual. "There was a lot of unique talent and Yahoo never bought into the idea of maps and geo. It was always another place to put ads."

Yet somehow Yahoo managed to create an amazing suite of geo APIs long before Google, who just in the last two years began introducing separate tools to enhance map developer's applications. It was still 2005 when Yahoo acquired Whereonearth. That technology later was used in Yahoo's geo products, like the Yahoo Placemaker API, which extracts places from textual content. Whereonearth IDs, known as WOEIDs, have even found their way outside of Yahoo. The Twitter API's concept of neighborhoods and other places comes directly from Whereonearth. Now it's not even clear if anyone from Whereonearth is still at Yahoo.

With all the promise within Yahoo's geo products, it's sad to see its first geo API, the one that helped spark amazing things on the web, go away. And to see it go away in this developer-unfriendly way is even worse. "Just dropping a product and not replacing it at all leaves developers in the lurch," Bell said. "Yahoo Products don't die, they just wither away. Geo has sadly been part of this tendency to underinvest in a property and when it doesn't perform as expected justify that underperformance for cutting it."

Company politics may have played a role, too. In May 2010, Yahoo partnered with Nokia to make its maps "powered by Ovi," the brand for the communication company's Internet services. Still, Yahoo's flagship maps site won't go away. It will simply use Nokia's technology. Yahoo could have made a similar decision, wrapping its APIs around Ovi. Instead, developers are simply given a link and an implied "good luck." Developers making the move from Yahoo should seriously consider Mapstraction to save a re-write the next time they need to switch providers. Even moving between versions of the same API can be a pain, as developers discovered when Google Maps deprecated V2.

So, here we are, Yahoo Maps. We list 134 Yahoo Maps mashups and there are countless others that will cease to work on September 13. I'll awaken that day to a to-do list that includes deadpooling Yahoo Maps from our API directory. And it will make me sad again. Perhaps because I suspect it won't be much longer before I'll have to do it again. When will Yahoo string up another of its 9 Yahoo mapping APIs and smash it to tiny splinters? If it happens soon, I'd like to think even Pete Townshend would say they've gone too far.

Grim Reaper image via Vector Portal.

Be sure to read the next Mapping article: Google Maps for Flash Among Several Axed Google APIs