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Google Earth Catches On In The Business World

Companies like Bentley Systems, Dell, and Volkswagen make increased business use of what was once a consumer service.

It's Google's earth. We just live here.

Search for "Earth" on Yahoo and the first result you get is--Google Earth. "Google Earth really is everywhere," says Joe Croser, global marketing director for Bentley Systems, a maker of infrastructure design software for engineering and construction projects.

Google Earth took off as a gee-whiz consumer curiosity, but it's fast finding real-world business uses. Last week, Bentley said it added to its MicroStation computer-aided design software the ability to publish 2-D and 3-D models of infrastructure assets directly to Google Earth. "It adds context to the model and makes it feel real," Croser says.

Ray Bentley, the software company's executive VP, describes Google Earth as "ubiquitous, at least in our industry."

Bentley's MicroStation app gets the big picture with Google Earth.

(click image for larger view)

Bentley's MicroStation app gets the big picture with Google Earth.
In fact, Google Earth is used widely outside engineering and construction. The fact that it integrates with GPS and radio-frequency identification systems makes it well-suited for asset tracking in any industry. For example, Dell uses Google Earth to track business customers' equipment in Asia as part of its inventory management system.

Google Earth is becoming a sort of home page for geospatial data and related files. Just as the desktop and the Web browser are starting points in virtual space, Google Earth represents a convenient organizational metaphor for projects that extend from cyberspace to physical space.

Because Google Earth is easy to use, it's well-suited for consumer-facing applications such as car navigation systems. At the 2006 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Volkswagen of America, graphics chipmaker nVidia, and Google said they were working on an in-car navigation system based on Google Earth maps. The system will include automatic updates with personalized content, such as information on restaurants, gas stations, and other sites of importance to motorists.

Why Google? Beyond the benefits of Google Earth's realistic images, it'll let VW bring search into vehicles, says Arne Stoschek, head of displays, sensors, and materials at Volkswagen's Electronic Research Lab. Volkswagen's wireless Internet connectivity to vehicles will allow access to real-time data and Google search results. That should provide more accurate information than year-old data stored on the CD-ROMs used by first-generation navigation systems.

Rapid Evolution

Given that Google Earth has been officially available only since June, the software's diverse use is surprising. It evolved from software created by satellite data company Keyhole, founded in 2001 and bought by Google in 2004.

Having created Google Earth, Google isn't resting. Last week, it acquired @Last Software, a maker of 3-D software for producing conceptual designs, which, not coincidentally, can be loaded into Google Earth. It also launched Google Mars, a less-practical complement to Google Earth.

The company says Google Earth is widely used by state and federal agencies involved with the environment, space research, land management projects, homeland security, and defense intelligence. But it refuses to name specific agencies or companies that use Google Earth. Media companies were using Keyhole before Google got hold of it; in March 2003, CNN used Keyhole's software to simulate for viewers bombing runs over Baghdad, Iraq.

Four versions of Google Earth are available: Google Earth, which is free; Google Earth Plus, which is priced at $20 annually and includes GPS importing and other useful features; Google Earth Pro, a $400-per-year version tuned for research, presentation, and other commercial uses; and Google Earth Enterprise, no price published, for companies that want to deploy Google Earth on-site.

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