Update (January 11, 2012) – Google Maps API Free changed slightly in April 2011 in two ways: “You can require users to log in to your Maps API Implementation if you do not require users to pay a fee.” and “You can charge a fee for your Maps API Implementation if it is an Android application downloadable to mobile devices from the Android Market.” API License section 9.1.3 Examples (a) (b). However, if you charge for your web app, Google still requires a Google Maps API for Business license. Contact them for pricing.

Here’s an excellent, very detailed multi-link post by Sebastian Delmont on how his company was able to forge an alternative using Open Source cartography tools which has advanced light years since this post was written. Dan says, “I think that someone at Google got their pricing wrong by an order of magnitude.” – I agree.

If you’re developing an commercial online app or subscription-based service using Google Maps, there’s a major gotcha you need to consider in the current Terms of Service. It’s a $10,000 gotcha. I discovered this gotcha last week when coding one of the last chunks of StartupToDo.com (a.k.a. Project X: a training/productivity community for startups and microISVs – launching soon).

In StartupToDo.com, one of the features I want to make available to the community is a decent listing of StartupToDo events, online events and actual events such as conferences, meetups, coding weekends and the like. For this last feature, what better way to display the global nature of all the startup/microISV-related things happening with increasing frequency than Google Maps?

StartupToDo.com - Events

StartupToDo.com - Events

But there’s a gotcha.

“The Maps API is a free service, available for any web site that is free to consumers,” and clicking the terms of use link will spell this out in no uncertain terms:

9. License Requirements. Google’s licenses above are subject to your adherence to the following requirements:

9.1 Free, Public Accessibility to Your Maps API Implementation. Your Maps API Implementation must be generally accessible to users without charge. You may require users to log in to your Maps API Implementation if you do not require users to pay a fee. Unless you have entered into a separate written agreement with Google or obtained Google’s written permission, your Maps API Implementation must not:

(a) require a fee-based subscription or other fee-based restricted access; or
(b) operate only behind a firewall or only on an internal network (except during the development and testing phase).

If you want to charge people in some way to use your web app (as I will be), you need Google Apps API Premier. What do you get in Premier?

Google Maps API Premier returns fast, relevant results to your customers – even on the busiest of websites. You benefit from your customers’ familiarity with Google Maps, plus the worldwide scalability and high interactivity of the mapping API. Google Maps API Premier includes everything you love about Google Maps, plus:

* Greater capacity for service requests such as geocoding
* The ability to provide secure maps over https
* Business-friendly terms and conditions
* Support and service options
* Control over advertisements within the maps

So naturally, there must be “free until you’re successful” safe harbor for startups, like there is for Google App Engine? Nope. The quote I got back promptly from Google was $10,000. A year. And yes, we mean you. The person I was emailing back was polite and put me in contact with their manager:

I appreciate your note. There are several issues behind why the model for Maps is different than for App Engine but I do appreciate your viewpoint. We are actively looking at ways to address this but unfortunately do not have an immediate term solution beyond using the free Google Maps API (which I understand is not allowable with a non publicly accessible site).

Now don’t get me wrong: Google has a perfect right to charge for it’s API and I can certainly understand why it would presumably charge sites like Zillow.com (except Zillow is now using Microsoft Bing Maps – last I looked I could have sworn it was using Google Maps…). But it makes sense for Google to help aspiring startups and microISVs get started: the Google App Engine managers get this.

It’s free to get started.
Every Google App Engine application will have enough CPU, bandwidth, and storage to serve around 5 million monthly pageviews for free. You can purchase additional resources at competitive prices when you need them and you’ll pay only for what you use.

I hope other startups contact Google: hearing from the community will help them do the Right Thing.

In the meantime, to comply with Google Maps API, this Events page (and one other) “must be generally accessible to users without charge”: not a great state of affairs for what is going to be a subscription service, but ok for now (while you’ll be able to hit this page without logging in, I -think- you won’t be able to get into the rest of the app. Please private email me at bob.walsh@47hats.com right now if you find this isn’t the case – I will be most appreciative.)

Meanwhile, back to coding…