Choosing the Right Mobile Map for Your Apps

By Blake Davidson | Jun 04, 2015

As a kid, I remember climbing in the car and going on long road trips with the family. One of my favorite things to do was to grab the map or atlas and try to figure out exactly where we were in the world. I also remember seeing Google Earth for the first time, and then giving up the map for MapQuest. Now, all of these technologies can be placed in the palm of your hand and have vastly improved over the past decade. Not only is mapping important to us as individual consumers, but it also plays a very important role in the enterprise arena as well.

Square Phone, Round Earth

So, how does the earth, which is round, get displayed on a surface that’s flat? The answer is projection. The most common type of projection is called Mercator projection. This type of projection rolls the earth out into a flat rectangle, and geographical elements become larger the farther they are away from the equator. Mercator projection allows us to divide the earth up into perfect squares, or tiles, which is a key factor in how we use mapping systems that are native to an operating system as well as third party providers.

Map tiles are simply png or jpeg images. The operating system determines how far the user is zoomed in and what size map will fit on the screen. It then uses the latitude, longitude, and zoom level to request tiles from a tile server or from a cached database on the device, and then displays each title accordingly.

Why is mapping important to enterprise?

Sure, mapping can help me get to my destination and even avoid heavy traffic, but why is it important to enterprise users? Take the oil and gas industry for example. These enterprises might have a multitude of sites with a variety of equipment at each site. They might even have several employees responsible for one or many of these sites. If a user knows where they are in relation to each site as well as their proximity to co-workers, then they are able to make smarter and more efficient decisions on where they should be going and what they should be doing. This can keep an employee from driving hours out of the way and adds up to vast amounts of cost savings.

Standard Maps vs. Custom Maps

Most users are unaware that when displaying map tiles, there are more options available than just the standard map tiles, which are usually either a satellite view or a standard view or a mixture of the two. A third party service, such as MapBox, can be used to customize just about any aspect of the map tiles including changing the color of land and water features as well as the road and other landmarks. These services also allow a user to create custom terrain based or satellite based maps as well upload their own images to use.

Which one should we use?

When choosing to stick with the native map tiles or using a third party service like MapBox, there are several factors to consider. You first need to know who will be using your app and how they will be using it. It’s also important to consider how crucial it is to keep a consistent interface design, and also if users need additional topographical information beyond the standard satellite view. There is no charge associated with using the native maps, whereas third party service generally charge a premium based on usage. There is also a bit more development involved to retrieve and display custom tiles. Typically, both native tiles as well as third party custom tiles can be cached and used offline.

At ChaiOne, we always suggest using the right tool for the job. This includes deciding if a project should use custom map tiles or just stick with what the operating system has to offer. Depending on your specific requirements, preference, and resources, the choice may vary. However, in many enterprise apps that are map heavy, we suggest using a combination of both as this offers flexibility and customization when needed.


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