Google Earth: An Emerging ‘Geobrowser’

I often hear people say about Google, “Other than search it’s just a bunch of ‘me-too’ products.” Whether or not you agree, you have to admit that in the case of Earth and Maps that’s clearly not true. Although maps have become an important “battleground” in the so-called “search wars,” it’s an area where Google has clearly innovated with its developer tools and user experience.

There were a number of technical things about the new Google Earth rollout yesterday that went over my head; I’m not a developer and I was in a room of developers and engineers who were very much the intended audience at Google’s Geo Developer Day on the Google campus. But I was impressed by a number of things yesterday that I’ll try and capture here.

As Danny already posted, you can read about the new Google Earth 4 and associated features on the Google Blog. So I won’t recap all those things. I’ll run down what was interesting to me and where I think all this may be going.

Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin introduced the session I attended and emphasized the importance of geography and location generally. Schmidt said, “Geolocation is one of the big opportunities around search.” He pointed out that Google was “investing heavily in the ‘core infrastructure’: better maps, faster servers, more local context and data.”

We also keep hearing on analyst calls that Maps and Local are areas of success for Google, both in terms of usage and revenue. But its competitors, most notably Microsoft, are being at least as aggressive in trying to build out maps and related tools and user functionality. So this is going to be an area of accelerated innovation in the next couple of years.

John Hanke, Google Earth GM, moderated the session and discussed a range of things both technical and non-technical. Among them he discussed the intended 3-D mapping of cities around the globe with Google’s SketchUp product. This is also an ambition that Microsoft shares. But what was impressive yesterday was a demonstration by Mark Limber, product manager for SketchUp, involving the real-time creation of a 3-D model from scratch and using imagery from Google’s 3-D warehouse. He created a textured, photorealistic building in downtown San Francisco and plugged it into Earth in less than five minutes. He also spoke about some of the potential commercial applications of the technology for realtors, architects, designers and urban planners, among others. Here’s a laundry list of SketchUp’s commercial uses.

Another impressive element of the discussion concerned the role of the “Google Earth Community,” which Google clearly sees as integral to its build out of the data layer for Earth and Maps. Google’s Michael Jones, CTO of Earth, discussed Google’s philosophy of “participatory mapping” and demonstrated some of the applications that third parties had created on top of Earth, including the relatively well known National Geographic data layer. (As an aside, this starts to redefine what the magazine is by putting content in a geographic context.)

Jones also demonstrated how you can layer historical photographs on Earth and effectively “time travel” by showing prior views of an area (e.g., the San Francisco Bay Area circa 1900). He also spoke about how information that one wouldn’t ordinarily think of as geographic can actually be integrated into Earth and Maps. As an example, he mentioned how a developer had mapped all of Shakespeare’s plays in Earth (their physical settings) with their associated historical details and text.

Google is encouraging the community of developers, and increasingly ordinary users, build out data on top of Earth and Maps. And we’ll see tools that make it easier for ordinary people to create “mashups” over time. To that point, speaker Jessica Lee discussed KML files (a version of XML for Earth) and how they’re an alternative way to publish mashups for people who don’t use the API. This may still be too complicated for most people but it’s moving in the direction of broad accessibility.

During the Q&A session at the end, I asked two questions. One was about the future relationship between Maps and Earth. John Hanke had formerly told me, after the Google acquisition of Keyhole, that Earth was essentially a “laboratory” for Maps. Clearly it has become something much more. He laughed and didn’t remember saying that. But he and his team pointed out in response to the question that Maps and Earth now had the same infrastructure and there would be more and more overlap in the products. They saw them, however, as different use cases ultimately.

The other question I asked, prompted by something Jones had said earlier, was about Earth as a “geobrowser.” As an aside, I ultimately believe some version of 3-D mapping converges with multi-player gaming. Then things will really get interesting. Someone asked a question along these lines and Hanke, who has a personal interest in gaming, responded, “Let’s talk about that offline.”

But the notion of Earth or Maps as an alternative way to search the Internet or discover information is only going to gain momentum. Ask’s CEO Jim Lanzone long ago discussed with me the limitations of the “ten blue links” approach to delivering certain kinds of content. Google Earth is the opposite of the ten blue links: it’s a rich visual and location specific way to browse for content; and almost any type of data (including video) can be rendered inside of Earth. It’s literally an alternative web-browsing interface and paradigm. And in that regard it’s incredibly fascinating.

The level of enthusiasm from developers in the room yesterday was very interesting to observe. Speakers were interrupted by loud applause several times in response to various techical statements. Such remarks and the response to them were generally lost on me until their significance was explained in English. It was at times a little like being in a foreign film without subtitles.

People that understand mapping and the associated tools are really excited about it as a platform and interface. Also the showcase of mashups, most of which have no commercial application whatsoever, reflected the creative appetite and enthusiasm for mapping and its potential uses.

Given the technical possibilities, the use cases and the increasing competition, which will only fuel the continuing evolution of the product, it’s safe to say that dynamic mapping and 3-D rendering online are at the beginning of a potentially explosive development cycle. And that will likely take us in directions we’re only vaguely aware of right now.

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