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February 1st, 2015
With 10 years of Google Maps and Earth, what’s the impact?

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It’s hard to remember the geospatial industry prior to the arrival of Google Maps and Google Earth early in 2005. There was an overnight acceleration of engagement with mapping technologies that went far beyond just getting to Grandma’s house. The entry of these technologies was truly disruptive with revolutionary innovations that increased the size of the geospatial tent, while also pushing a few companies out.

Those in the industry had an easier entry point to the common conversation starting point, “What do you do?” We went from describing computer-based mapping to, “you know Google Maps and Google Earth?”

In the ten years since their entry, we’ve seen mapping go online in a big way, with an explosion of available data and a dramatically increased quality of the visual geospatial experience. Google has continued to invest and innovate, and with this anniversary they’re also turning a chapter by retiring some mapping products and making more free.

Maps, Earth, Apps and Engines

Prior to the entry of Google Maps and Earth, there were similar online functionalities, but ones that were limited to much smaller geographies. Google went bold with their acquisition of Keyhole and a few little-known mapping companies, quickly assimilating these pieces into a platform and investing in data to display imagery and maps at a global scale.

The experience and innovation of panable tile-based and multi-scale maps, along with the new Ajax client-server relationship that improved performance, created a big leap forward dubbed slippy maps. It was shortly after the release of Google Maps that a clever coder created the first mashup — scraping tabular data about apartments for rent in Chicago with the Google Maps interface for map-based searches. This ability was quickly embraced by Google with the opening of an API that let others replicate map-based searches. This morphed into a whole generation of map-based apps and startups that combined location data and mapping into services that they hoped to sell.

The API’s for mapping were expanded into a Google Earth Enterprise and Google Maps Engine for those wishing to morph these tools into workflows for their missions or as services to their clients. Google’s expertise in data warehousing and online transactions gave them a lead on maps on the cloud before we were even talking about these data centers as “in the cloud” offerings.

Local Lead

You may recall that Google and Microsoft were locked in a battle ten years ago to be the leaders in local search, with the likes of Yahoo! and MapQuest not far behind. As the Yellow Pages have become an intergenerational joke, the local search market valued in the $10’s of billions has been up for grabs. There are a number of top digital players that crowd this area, but the battle is ongoing and Google has a lead.

Instead of populating the map with ads as prior technologies had done, Google took a longer look and has slowly executed on making the map the interface to all local businesses. Their Google Places and Google My Business are innovating the local business search arena complete with indoor mapping of many establishments that give searchers a strong understanding of what they can expect, particularly in a retail experience.

Mobile, Personal and Morphable

In 2010, the company made more of a bold move toward mobile map use, transitioning from solely raster-based map tiles to a mix that included vector for smaller file sizes and a faster mobile experience. The mobile mapping experience is an area where they have perhaps done the most while also meeting the most resistance.

Google’s mobile hold includes a bi-directional data flow where each user of their maps also becomes a sensor for data collection. With this move, Google has invented a new kind of mapping experience. Their navigation tools now suggest routing that’s based on quickest route with near real-time data from other vehicles that are using the app on your route ahead. There’s also the multimodal support for routing by car, transit, bicycle or walking to aid our personal journeys. The mobile navigation experience introduces a new kind of morphable map that conforms to the users interests, while aiming at delivering an optimal experience through computer algorithms and the insight from others.

Google’s hold on the mobile mapping experience led rise to the much maligned entry of Apple Maps. This entry back in Sept. 2012 was a PR disaster for Apple, showing that getting online mapping right takes technical expertise and a considerable investment.

Data Juggernaut

Google’s initial investment in huge amounts of geospatial data continues, although they have slowly brought that capability in-house for both on-the-ground data as well as imagery from above. Their entry ten years ago was based on the best data that money could buy, and they continue to work with many data partners, but they have also made a considerable investment in data collection technologies and efforts.

The fleet of Google Street View cars is certainly the most visible of their data access efforts, capturing street-level imagery around the globe, including a more mobile bicycle and backpack version for capturing out-of-reach areas such as park or monuments. They have also recently spent $2 billion for the acquisition of Skybox Imaging, which is putting high-resolution Earth observation satellites in orbit. Just weeks ago, Google invested upwards of $1 billion in SpaceX’s satellite business. While that effort aims at Internet communications, it’s certainly feasible that these satellites will also provide a platform for expanded observation.

Enterprise Exit

Google made some surprising mapping changes recently, with announcements that they would no longer support the Google Earth API, coupled with the announcement that Google Earth Pro would now be free, opening up the enhanced toolset with 3D measurement and high-resolution flythrough creation to all.

Another more shocking announcement is the fact that they will also deprecate Google Earth Enterprise and Google Maps Engine. To add to the intrigue, Google has reached out to Esri and the two have provided a path for these customers to transition to Esri software.

Keeping in mind that 95% of Google’s revenue comes from paid ads, and that it’s a public company beholden to stockholders, it’s not so surprising that they have decided to no longer support their enterprise applications. This change cedes ground to the enterprise leader, and the gaining strength and power of Esri’s cloud-based offering, while also forging a stronger alliance with a fellow California-based company that is interested in pushing our mapping capabilities forward.

Mapping Business?

Google’s ongoing investment in mapping is assured, but the latest move makes it look like they’ve abandoned their map platform as a revenue generator and instead focused on maps as a means to augment their search and advertising revenue. While there are few of the many map app companies still around, that experiment in maps as business model has certainly become smaller.

Esri has always touted their private company advantage as they’ve seen competitors around them take on debt and become disoriented while they plug away at enhancing their mapping platform while taking on an outsize R&D investment that would be lost to shareholders in a public company.

Google has pioneered many advancements in mapping and data collection, making them a global leader in mapping. They’ve weathered scrutiny about privacy, while plugging away with global maps and directions that are unmatched. Google’s realignment of the geospatial industry, with continual innovation, has been to the individual user’s benefit and has greatly increased the awareness of the power of maps. It will be interesting to see what moves the company makes in the coming years as they increase their leverage of their many map data gathering mechanisms to continue to evolve our understanding of what the word map means.


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