AOL’s MapQuest Inks UI Deal With Mapbox As It Prepares To Overhaul The Product

AOL, which is in the process of getting acquired by Verizon for $4.4 billion, says it has no plans to divest itself of its content operations (which include TechCrunch) as part of that deal. But it’s not leaving them on autopilot, either. We’ve confirmed there are plans to overhaul MapQuest, its mapping business, later this year.

Part of that includes a deal with developer mapping platform startup Mapbox, which will provide new rendering for MapQuest’s maps.

We were tipped off to changes because of a tweet claiming AOL would be shutting down MapQuest’s internal mapping capabilities and switching to Mapbox. Then, just earlier today, the Washington Post ran a feature on MapQuest that also noted an upcoming overhaul of the product. We understand this product refresh is likely to launch this fall.

While we have yet to nail down a lot of the details of how the overhauled MapQuest will look, here’s what we know so far: the Mapbox portion of the new service will cover rendering services only. This has led to MapQuest eliminating two positions from its own team. (There has been at least one other notable departure: Ty Beltramo, who had been the CTO, left this month, although we understand that was a personal, rather than business-related, decision.)

The raw data for those maps will continue to come from MapQuest’s current providers, which include TomTom and OpenStreetMap (both are also used by Apple Maps). MapQuest will continue to retain a team of developers who will create services that use these maps, such as a recent development that lets users of the app summon roadside assistance if their car breaks down.

And while the Washington Post article notes that MapQuest is currently profitable, we wouldn’t be surprised if we see MapQuest looking to leverage more of the ad-tech side of AOL’s business to further monetize the data that it does pick up from its maps.

A source familiar with the matter told us that MapQuest makes the majority of its revenues from B2B sales, with a “couple of thousand” customers for its enterprise services at this stage.

It was not that long ago that MapQuest was considered the market leader when it came to online maps. Google Maps finally overtook it in 2009, according to comScore, when it registered 42.2 million monthly users to MapQuest’s 41.5 million, as Google began to leverage its search engine as a channel for more traffic to its maps above those of other providers.

In the last several years, the huge shift to smartphone and tablet usage, and away from less moveable computers, has led to a massive boost for location-based services and the need for good mapping technology to meet consumer demand. That’s given major uplift to apps like Google Maps, which help people use their smartphones as navigation tools.

The evolution of connected cars, cloud-based services and new data collection hardware, is opening up a whole new set of ways that maps will be useful and maybe even necessary. That’s one reason why the sale of Nokia’s Here mapping division seems to be drawing a lot of interest.

You could argue that in some ways MapQuest has not capitalised on this boom. The Washington Post notes that MapQuest now has some 40 million monthly unique users (for the desktop version of its product) — essentially a decline from the number it had in 2009. But from what we understand from a source, that works out to billions of map views.

And interestingly, MapQuest has had some unlikely boosts to its traffic: when Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, apologized publicly for some of the teething problems Apple was facing with its first foray into its own maps, MapQuest’s app was named by him as one alternative for people to use. That led to millions of users who are still using the MapQuest app today.

“We’re in a very tough space,” one MapQuest employee told us of the challenge of building a product that can do battle with the likes of Google Maps.

The main reason for the lack of an overhaul of MapQuest’s product before now is down to lack of resources — with some 100 employees at MapQuest versus (for instance) 6,000 at Nokia Here. However, AOL has evidently revisited MapQuest and decided to reinvest — initially putting more effort into its apps and now turning attention to the desktop product in a bid to grow that 40 million MAU figure.

AOL bought MapQuest back in 1999 for $1.1 billion.