Maps That Tell You When It’s Safe to Breathe

China’s Internet leaders are adding features to sell mobile ads

The Maps That Tell You When It's Safe to Breathe

Mapmakers in ancient China were renowned for innovation in accuracy and scale. As the nation’s Big Three Internet companies compete to attract users to their mapping software, their focus remains much the same, with a few high-tech twists. Online marketplace Alibaba, search engine Baidu, and messaging-app maker Tencent are pouring money into free mapping apps to draw larger mobile audiences. The location data that comes with the new users is coveted by advertisers, who can push products to people in specific places. Google Maps’ share of the market has slipped into the single digits since the company stopped providing search services in China five years ago, complaining of government censorship.

The three Chinese companies offer mapping features that Google doesn’t. Alibaba’s mobile apps, Amap and Anav, show local pollution readings culled from China’s Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs and can plot routes inside about 2,000 commercial buildings. Baidu Map is also experimenting with indoor routes by mapping shopping malls; it displays real-time traffic patterns and public-transit alerts, too. Tencent Map also provides current traffic data, plus location tracking that sends users coupons for businesses along their route. All three are racing to chart the rest of the country.

Mobile apps in China

About 33 percent of Chinese mobile customers have Alibaba’s mapping apps installed, while Baidu places second, with 27 percent, according to researcher Analysys International, which didn’t rank Tencent. At stake in the three-way tug-of-war is 3.5 billion yuan ($564 million) a year in location-based smartphone advertising. “The mobile Internet means motion,” says Chen Yonghai, vice president for mobile products at Alibaba subsidiary AutoNavi. “Motion means location, and location depends on mapping.”

Alibaba took its narrow market lead last year after acquiring Beijing-based map service AutoNavi in a deal that valued the company at $1.5 billion. During February’s Lunar New Year celebrations, Alibaba gave out $1.6 million in gas coupons to new users of AutoNavi’s two main apps, Amap and Anav, and says daily map users jumped 30 percent that month. Combined, more than 300 million people regularly use the apps; Alibaba says they cover 61 cities and 3.3 million miles of road.

Baidu spokeswoman Whitney Yan says her company’s app also has 300 million users and covers 95 percent of China’s highways, more than rivals. The app tracks delays on 70,000 bus lines encompassing 1.8 million bus stops. Baidu has invested $10 million in Finnish company IndoorAtlas to use its interior mapping technology, which tracks a person’s movement based on changes in magnetic fields. In January, Yu Yongfu, president of Alibaba’s map business, gave a public presentation of its latest technology in Beijing in which he called Baidu Map “a half-bodied man” because of its reliance on outside partners, using a slide of a man without legs to illustrate his point. “We find that remark, and especially the illustration, to be in extremely poor taste,” says Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo.

In June, Tencent bought 11 percent of Chinese mapping company NavInfo. Tencent said in an e-mailed statement that the two companies are working together to add more detailed real-time traffic info and location-based ads such as restaurant coupons to Tencent Map. The app covers 364 cities, including street-level views in 137. Its latest service, WeDrive, beams phone navigation and entertainment to a car’s video screen.

During the Lunar New Year, Baidu heat maps showed users flowing out of the country’s cities for the holiday. Alibaba is integrating its mapping technology into cars, jointly developing an Internet-connected car with SAIC Motor. “All the Internet giants in China want to move to exploring more opportunities in location-based services,” says Ashley Sheng, an analyst at SWS Research in Shanghai. “Mapping is one of the best ways to help them achieve that.”

The bottom line: China’s Big Three Internet companies are battling for control of the map market and $564 million in mobile ads.

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