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August 18th, 2015
Is Google going dormant on map innovation or just biding its time?

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This year marked the tenth anniversary of both Google Maps and Earth, putting emphasis on the technology maturity and ubiquity. The Earth offering is now a seamless click to view on Google Maps, and the continued emphasis on simplicity belies the data creation and innovation frenzy that created this map leader.

In coincidence with these landmarks, a dialing back of efforts appears to be underway. The  company has seen some high-profile spokespeople leave, and they also abandoned their Google Earth Enterprise strategy to be passed onto others as outside of their core.

This visible slowdown doesn’t give away any ground in terms of technology slip or the importance of maps to the company. Yet, there haven’t been any aweing announcements of late that put Google Maps in the forefront of spatial innovation. What’s interesting to note in this period are a number of emerging technologies in development that could easily inform maps for a next-generation more real-time and realistic model.

Alphabet Inertia

Last week we learned a plausible reason behind some of the mapping reshuffle and rethinking as Google unveiled a new strategy around a new parent company called Alphabet. This new entity defines the core Google functions, splinters non-core business offerings and frees up the founders to look toward what’s next.

Mapping is clearly a core Google asset as it’s always been called Google Maps. The tie of search to local advertising revenue is very clear in enhancements that display reviews and offer local businesses means to enhance their listings. Some of the more science or sensor-based map offerings under the Google Maps family are far less tied to search or to functions tied to revenue generation, however it’s always been a part of the Google culture to give back and to push the availability of their platform for academic and Earth-friendly endeavors.

Understood Underpinnings

Google Maps certainly ranks high at Google alongside Gmail and Android in importance. As demonstrated time and again, most information can be tied to location, and location searches are a critical search criteria as everything happens somewhere. The company has invested heavily in map building to ensure the accuracy and completeness of their maps so that their searches and directions can be trusted.

The company is well aware of the power of maps, coupled with sensors and analyzed alongside big data for improved insight. Not only do maps form an enabling technology across many of the company’s ancillary businesses, but these ancillary businesses both consume and improve the company’s maps. This two-way street is most famously harnessed on Android-operated phones where a billion users help to feed the company’s calculations on traffic. Maps are also a critical component of autonomous cars and their recently launched Google Express delivery service, where each trip powered by the company’s maps offers an opportunity for map enhancement.

R&D Readiness

Google has a number of up-and-coming technologies that extend the symbioses of wayfinding with automated data collection. Google’s Project Tango tackles the major frontier of indoor location and mapping by coupling a tablet with a hardware cluster of several cameras, motion, location and depth sensors. The device captures a pixel point cloud mesh as you move it around, creating a 3D map that is placed in memory and is built upon for “area learning.” With this approach, the company improves upon prior indoor positioning solutions that deploy bluetooth or WiFi beacons, which are far more costly and difficult to deploy universally.

Another interesting area to watch is Google’s remote sensing interests. Their purchase of Skybox Imaging high-resolution satellite imaging platforms isn’t really about the information, but what kinds of questions that can be answered by more ubiquitous and near real-time analysis of imagery spanning the globe. In addition, the company has is still working on the high-altitude balloon network that could also offer a compelling observation platform, particularly tied to weather as the balloons travel globally with wind patterns.

The mapping mashups that spurred a great deal of start-up activity just five years ago has played out, and we need some more accessible tech to stir things up. Google has supplied a path for entrepreneurial energy in the past, and it will be interesting to see if all these emerging and aligned technologies can create the same excitement again.

With Google founders Brin and Page now dedicating even more time to what’s next, it may not be long before we see Google’s next move. Whether it’s indoor, on the road, or up in space, they have a heck of a legacy to build against for the next big mapping splash.

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