A List Apart: ‘Take Control of Your Maps’

On A List Apart, an online magazine about web design by and for web designers (who can be an obsessively exacting lot), Paul Smith has an article about going beyond the Google Maps API (or presumably others) for a site’s embedded maps:

Ask yourself this question: why would you, as a website developer who controls all aspects of your site, from typography to layout, to color palette to photography, to UI functionality, allow a big, alien blob to be plopped down in the middle of your otherwise meticulously designed application? Think about it. You accept whatever colors, fonts, and map layers Google chooses for their map tiles. Sure, you try to rein it back in with custom markers and overlays, but at the root, the core component — the map itself — is out of your hands.
The result is Google Maps fatigue. We’ve all experienced it. It manifests not only when we yawn at YAGMM (Yet Another Google Maps Mashup), because there are high-quality web apps deploying the Google Maps API seamlessly and with great success. Despite this, and despite the fact that Google itself continues to refine and improve the base application, the fatigue remains. It’s the effect of seeing the same elements over and over again across the web. As web developers, we live with constraints, so to a certain extent, the Google Maps API is similar to Verdana and Georgia — they’re common components we know will work well. But if it were possible and practical to make a substitution, wouldn’t you do so?
Depending on your application, Google’s choices about what display on the map and how to display it might not work for you. On a general-purpose map, for example, it’s great to see the outlines of building footprints, as Google is starting to display in certain cities — but such outlines might only constitute visual clutter for your application. Google decides what information is conveyed to your users, but it’s not necessarily what they need or want.

Smith outlines the various layers of the so-called map stack — the servers hosting the mapping application, the web server, the tile image server — and some alternative (read: open-source) ways of delivering each.

Via Geobloggers.