The real story behind Google Maps and Microsoft Virtual Earth has less to do with road directions than with their potential to change creative landscapes.

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

August 16, 2005

7 Min Read

Now, most of the technology used in these tools is about as original as a new Cheech and Chong movie. Besides its aerial imagery licensing deal with Pictometry, Microsoft uses satellite imagery from its own TerraServer database — a collection of U.S. Geological Survey satellite imagery the company has owned for about a decade.

To prepare for its Virtual Earth launch, Microsoft merged TerraServer with its MapPoint unit, a move that reflects the online integration of the two groups' satellite and mapping data. You don't hear much about where MapPoint, which is probably the most popular source of enterprise mapping and location-based services, gets its data. In fact, Microsoft licenses most of its MapPoint data from Navteq, one of just two companies capable of providing accurate, constantly refreshed information about the six million miles of paved road that exists in the Lower 48 states today.

Most of the technology used in these tools is about as original as a new Cheech and Chong movie.

Google Maps, in turn, licenses a similar mapping data set from Tele Atlas, which offers an almost identical product and competes mostly on pricing against Navteq. Like Microsoft, Google also now owns its satellite imagery provider: Keyhole, a company that also created three-dimensional "flyby" imaging technology that Google previously offered as a subscription-based service. And Keyhole, in turn, acquired its satellite imagery database from two primary sources, DigitalGlobe and EarthSat. (This explains the patchy-looking appearance you may see in certain images, which may use a mosaic of photos from both sources that may have been taken at different times of the year.)

I'm skipping plenty of details here, but you get the point: Satellite imaging is still an expensive business that relies upon very esoteric technologies, and a truly do-it-yourself attitude doesn't make sense even for companies the size of Google and Microsoft. The same thing is also true for the raw data both companies use in their mapping tools. The process of turning vector mapping data, covering millions of miles of streets and highways, into reliable driving directions can, in some ways, be just as complex and nearly as expensive as creating high-resolution photographs of the entire planet.

Certainly, both Microsoft and Google have added value to their raw data sources, making the geographic and mapping data searchable, integrating it with data from local business directories and other sources, and building the user interfaces. Most, if not all, of the technology required to build Google Maps and Virtual Earth was already available, however, which explains why Microsoft in particular didn't have to work nearly as hard as it might seem to get Virtual Earth up and running in less than six months.

What's The Point?
So, as neat as these services are, and as truly awe-inspiring as the technology is, it's mostly just a matter of existing tech applied to existing data, with a ton of money providing the glue. As a result, it's tempting to conclude that the mapping grudge match between Google and Microsoft is more like a contest to see who can attach the biggest set of tail fins to a Volkswagen. Sooner or later, most people ask the same question: What's the point?

Google Maps and Virtual Earth are part of an extraordinary competition between the two companies. It's just that Google and Microsoft, at the end of the day, aren't the reasons why it's extraordinary.

Google Maps and Virtual Earth, you see, both include open APIs. Outside developers can call upon the functionality behind these tools, absolutely free, to use in their own Web sites and online applications. While there are some rules to follow — mostly involving to what extent you can use the APIs with commercial Web sites — anyone with a modest amount of Web development knowledge can hack these services to their hearts' content.

Open, and very successful, APIs of this sort aren't a new concept: Both Amazon.com and eBay have enjoyed remarkable successes with their own APIs, spawning developer communities with thousands of active members. But the developer communities springing up around the Google Maps and Virtual Earth APIs are different in some important ways, and so are the implications of what they're doing for Google, Microsoft, you, me, and everyone else on the planet with access to a networked computer.

Developers are voting on the distinction with their feet and their brains. There is a wide disparity between the busy-bee Google Maps dev list (which, when I checked, averaged nearly 150 messages per day) and the nearly moribund (42 posts total, none posted between August 9 and this writing on August 14) Virtual Earth list. When I searched Google by the name of each service plus the words "developer API," Google's entry returned 693,000 results, Microsoft's just 152,000.

While mailing list activity and search results may not tell the whole story, and Virtual Earth deserves a handicap by virtue of having launched only in late July, it's still tempting to conclude that Microsoft's me-too approach is both too little and much too late to divert the flow of developers making a beeline for Google Maps.

Getting Creative
That's bad news for Microsoft, because, thanks to its developer community, Google Maps is now riding the crest of a stunning wave of creativity. In fact, Google Maps is quickly generating the sort of buzz that presages a full-blown cultural phenomenon. And it's happening because of people who aren't Google employees and who never expected or received a penny of compensation for their work.



One creative site lets you see where providers have the closest cell towers. (Click to enlarge image.)

Even citing a few good examples of the fruits of their labor is an impossible task. There's so much to see out there, covering so many different interests and types of applications. Having a hard time with cell phone reception? Try out cellreception.com, which uses Google's maps and satellite imagery to show which providers have the closest antennas — down to the rooftop where they're located. Love a good boat race? Jef Poskanzer's Transpac 2005 map took GPS data broadcast from contestants in June's race from Long Beach to Honolulu and displayed it using Google Maps imagery. Prefer a race where something might be gaining on you? Look at this interactive map that can show the tracks of every Atlantic hurricane recorded back to 1851.

Whether you're a crime buff, house hunter, or a newshound, chances are there's a Google Maps hacker (or perhaps quite a few) doing something you need to see. Rather than waste any more time citing a hopelessly inadequate list of examples, I'll direct you to Google Maps Mania, which notes new and interesting hacks and also provides enough links to other, similar resources to get you fired for excessive Web surfing in record time.

eBay and Amazon were successful because they invited developers to make everyone richer by buying into a proven business model. Google Maps doesn't yet have a business model (beyond the company's established one), but it's the sort of technology capable of inspiring artists, scientists, and the occasional highly-motivated smart aleck, in addition to people with money on their minds. You can bet there are people at Google whose only job is to sort through this rapidly growing mountain of innovation, looking for the next killer app — or the next dozen killer apps, at the rate this creative freight train is gaining speed. You can also bet they'll find what they're looking for.

So, will Microsoft get ahead of Google with its next release of Virtual Earth? Can Google Maps stay ahead of its imitative friends in Redmond? Will Yahoo or MapQuest catch up and compete against the front-runners in this race? Who cares? The only contest that matters here isn't being decided inside the walls of Google, Microsoft, or any other company.

As it stands, the world's map freaks can erase the word "boredom" from their vocabularies, because there's more happening at Google Maps than they'll ever be able to see. If Google can monetize its success and apply it successfully to other endeavors, its competitors won't have to worry about boredom either: Job-hunting, done properly, can be a very strenuous full-time pursuit.

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