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Google Earth Grows With New Hi-Res Imagery

Several functions could make mash-ups and other business uses more valuable.

In keeping with Google's global ambitions, Google Earth is getting bigger.

At Google's first Geo Developer Day on Monday, the company announced that it had increased its index of high-resolution satellite imagery by a factor of four, allowing users of Google Earth, and shortly Google Maps, to see the earth in much greater detail.

Over 20% of the earth's landmass can now be seen in high-resolution, according to John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Google Maps.

Google's geographic information keeps growing and it may eventually extend below the planet's surface, allowing users to navigate and visualize structures like utility pipes and undersea terrain. In response to a developer's question about the possibility of subterranean mapping, Hanke quipped, "Most of the ocean is below sea level. There's a lot of interesting stuff below that."

Google Earth is also becoming more expansive in terms of computing languages and platforms: The new Google Earth 4 beta is now localized for French, German, Italian, and Spanish. It is also available for the Linux operating system and as universal binary code that will run natively on Apple's Intel and its older PowerPC hardware. As an afterthought, Michael Jones, CTO of Google Earth, added, "Of course we're still supporting the Windows operating system." His comment elicited chuckles from the audience of developers.

Such jabs at Microsoft are common at Google events, despite the habit of Google executives to downplay a rivalry between the two companies. Among many other areas of contention with Google, Microsoft makes competing mapping software, MSN Virtual Earth.

Google Earth has been downloaded over 100 million times, according to Hanke.

Google introduced a new version of its SketchUp 3D rendering software that adds support for building textures. This allows models created for Google Earth to be much more visually appealing and realistic. The upgrade also includes support for Mac OS X.

The Google Maps API has been upgraded to support address geocoding, which converts standard street addresses into longitude and latitude coordinates for display on Google Maps. This feature is now available in the U.S., Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. The Google Maps API includes the ability to execute 50,000 geocoding operations per day.

The Google Maps API has become popular because it can be used to create composite, or mash-up, applications that combine data sets, such as real estate prices, with maps. A site that tracks such mash-ups, The Programmable Web, lists 481 map mash-ups made with map APIs from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Google has identified some 30,000 Web sites that host map mash-ups.

In addition, Google Maps gained the ability to view KML (Keyhole Markup Language) files, used to display geographic information on Google Earth. "This makes it so much easier for people to publish geographic information," said Google Maps product manager Jess Lee.

Google Maps for Enterprise made its debut as well. The business-oriented offering is a fee-based service ($10,000 annually and up) for companies aiming to embed Google Maps in internal or external Web sites.

Using the Google Maps API, companies can track shipments or inventory, manage facilities, or engage in any other business-related activity that might benefit from visualizing business data on a map. Dell, for example, uses Google Earth to track business customers' equipment in Asia as part of its inventory management system.

It's not immediately clear whether the new, hi-res imagery will draw the ire of governments that share the Earth with Google. Last December, the New York Times reported that the governments of India, Russia, and South Korea, among others, were worried that Google's imagery might compromise military installations.

Such fears are somewhat misplaced, however, since Google buys its imagery from satellite data providers like Digital Globe. A Google spokesperson wasn't immediately available to address the issue, but the company, via e-mail, did offer this statement: "Google has engaged, and will continue to engage, in substantive dialogue with the relevant agencies of the U.S. government, and with recognized security experts. To date, none of these authorities has raised security concerns about Google Earth images. Rather, we would expect security concerns to be addressed primarily with the entities that gather and supply the imagery."

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