Politics, competition create mapping minefield

Territorial disputes in Asia and business competition are causing governments to be more stringent in regulating digital maps, but this should not hamper growth of location-based services.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

The ongoing political tensions between Asian countries and increasing competition in the mobile market have led to stricter regulations on mapping, but this should not hinder mobile developers from creating compelling location-based services (LBS).

Yuta Torisu, communications research analyst at IDC Japan, pointed to political issues, both in Asia-Pacific and externally with other regions, as a key reason why the development of maps have had extra scrutiny in recent times.

Taking the territorial row between Japan, China and South Korea as an example, Torisu noted this has led to mobile map developers getting engaged in disputes with their respective governments.

Apple, for one, was censured by one South Korean government official for naming the Dokdo islets in three languages in its Maps application, saying the territory belongs to the country and all references to it should be in Korean.

Cupertino's diplomacy helped sidestep another political minefield between China and Japan though, when it provided a set of islands to depict Diaoyu Islands for China and Senkaku Islands for Japan in its Maps app.

Beyond political wrangles, the increasing competition in the mobile industry may also see markets such as South Korea and Taiwan imposing stricter regulations on foreign vendors as they look to protect homegrown companies, he said.

Samsung and HTC have been competing strongly against Apple, but these companies have been embroiled in contentious legal tussles that required both the Asian phonemakers to fork out money to Cupertino as a result.

With this in mind, the South Korean and Taiwanese regulators may be "on the watch" to retaliate against Apple and mapping is one area they can latch on to, Torisu pointed out. The Taiwanese government, for one, came down on Apple for using satellite images of its military installations which it deemed sensitive. The U.S. company had to subsequently blur the images on its map app.

Government-developer collaboration needed
Frank Levering, research manager at IDC Government Insights, said it is easy for anyone to purchase a physical copy of a map and replicate it digitally as long as they pay for the digital rights and get approval from the appropriate agency.

Mobile developers creating maps may, however, overlook information that is considered confidential in the interest of the nation. These may include disputed borders or military bases, he noted.

This is why levering suggested governments to work closer with developers and provide a list of confidential, risky areas, and for the latter to seek approval prior to any commercial activities. Developers should also respect the government's directive when it comes to mapping any sensitive areas, he added.

Asked if government regulations will affect the popularity of location-based services (LBS), he noted it will not interfere with the most common needs and wishes of consumers.

People have "nothing to gain" from seeing a secret military base represented as a government-owned property on the map unless their intentions are "less than noble", he added.

It is only when developers fail to develop a positive relationship with government authorities or ignore potential conflicts which might force certain state leaders to go overboard in its regulations and stifle innovation in LBS technology, the analyst said.

"As long as the rules are clear and well managed with reasonable processes, there shouldn't be any issue for governments and developers to create and deliver a plethora of map-based applications that will entice the citizens," Levering said.

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