Sunday, February 8th marked the 10th anniversary of the launch of Google Maps and I still clearly remember when my friend, and former colleague at AppGeo, Rich Sutton, called me over and said “hey, check this out.” Even at first glance it was pretty clear this new site would be a game changer. And in hindsight, I’d put this date somewhere in my personal “top 3” of the most important developments in the geospatial industry. The other two would be the 1982 release of Esri’s ARC/INFO (or, if you prefer, their earlier release of PIOS), and the release of the initial 1990 TIGER data by US Census which democratized the availability of geo data.
In thinking about writing this piece, I’ve enjoyed going into my email archives (I’m a well known email packrat) from February-March, 2005 to see what was being said, and indeed this event had created buzz. Among the finds:
- On February 10, 2005 the old GIS Montior e-zine posted a piece simply titled “Google Maps” where they acknowledged “Reader Atanas passed on the link…(to a) heated discussion of the new offering on Slashdot”. Was that you @atanas?
- By February 18, Adena Schutzberg was posting her second piece in “Directions on the News” titled “More on Google Maps’ Web Technology”
- And by March 3, our development team was distributing links to a variety of blogs that “looked under the hood” of the new offering, including a piece titled “as simple as possible, but no simpler” by Joel Webber that gives a flavor of the curiosity surrounding the launch.
So why is this birthday so important and worth celebrating?
- While MapQuest had been around for awhile, and Yahoo! Maps had launched earlier, Google set a new bar for what web mapping apps could be in terms of simplicity, utility, graphic elegance and performance. It was the first time most of us had seen continuous pan, aka the slippy map which has become today’s norm. Indeed, Brian Timoney’s mantra (stated in his blog from 2/11/13) that “if you are building any public-facing interface you have exactly four requirements: fast, intuitive, informative, fast” reflects the Google Maps aesthetic. Any site any of us creates now is competing with user expectations that have been set by Google Maps.
- Part was timing, and part was Google’s powerful brand, but the product quality itself has also led to much more massive adoption of web mapping tools by the public. Indeed, for us geospatial professionals it became a whole lot easier to explain what we did to our relatives and friends after Google Maps was launched. Web mapping came much more squarely into the public consciousness after Google Maps. Who in our industry hasn’t at some point used the term “yeah, it’s kind of like Google Maps…” in explaining our profession?
- Google quickly passed MapQuest as the most popular web mapping tool, and there’s been plenty of press on how ten years later it dominates the mobile/smartphone mapping world, even as Apple’s maps continue to improve. At a recent workshop we conducted I asked the audience of about 50 people, “how many of you used Google Maps – in any form – to find this location?” About half the room raised their hand. “How many used Bing?” Zero. “How many used Apple?” Zero. “How many used Esri?” Zero. The other half already knew how to get to the workshop.
- A large part of the large market share that Google has earned results from the fact that Google has not stood pat on their gains. Google quickly moved to the mobile platform and it introduced Street View. Google added public transportation routing and live traffic. Its “satellite imagery” (which is mostly flown with airplanes) now has 6” pixel resolution for the entire United States. Google’s “fuzzy” place search (typing “AppGeo” into the Maps search bar gets you to our location) and geocoding remain the best in the business. And so on. Google understands the importance of mapping to their entire cloud ecosystem and as documented by The Atlantic this doesn’t happen automatically. Google continues to invest massively in developing and improving mapping content and the user experience.
Google as a company is not perfect, and indeed there’s been plenty of geo press coverage and blogging on some recent upheavals and changes in Google’s geo product lines. But from our point of view as a Google geospatial partner, speculation that Google might be “getting out of the mapping game” is strongly and strangely misplaced. In truth, Google is doubling down on what it does best which is Google Maps; and it’s retreating from its more technical and “GISsy” offerings. Google’s Maps API products remain available, growing and evolving. These tools give business and government an ability to leverage Google’s content – base maps; imagery; geocoding; street view; live traffic; routing – and a user interface that most people are already familiar with. That’s what Google does best, and the field is open for other solutions that enable people to manage and manipulate their own geo data, whether on the cloud, or on-premise. Long live the mashup!
The bottom line is that Google Maps has changed the professional geospatial industry, and I’d argue strongly for the better. And, February 8, 2015 is a day worth both reflection and celebration. Happy birthday Google Maps!
Posted by Michael Terner, Executive Vice President