In Praise of Google Maps

Earlier this week, Google’s Geo team (working on Google Maps, Earth and Street View) gave a press conference that many bloggers reacted to with a lot of negative sentiments. Driven by anxiety and FUD over Apple’s imminent maps announcement at WWDC, they say, Google held a non-event whose only point was to steal Apple’s thunder. And that might indeed be true. The “news” Google wanted to share largely turned out to be a self-congratulatory history of their geo products. And for the few new features Google did announce no specific release date was given.

The Next Dimension of Google Maps: Video of Google's Maps, Earth and Street View press event on June 6, 2012.

Google Maps is Awesome

Despite all this, while watching the event I felt a deep admiration for everything Google has done in this space. Google Maps is my second-favorite web service of all time, only surpassed by Wikipedia. I use it almost every day. When it came out in 2005, I was in awe of the experience a mapping app could deliver. The smooth panning and zooming. The single search box that understands anything you throw at it. Remember how other mapping services worked at the time!

To top it off, satellite imagery not just for major cities but for entire countries. Not much later Google Earth was released and turned into a sensation. The Maps API was another huge gift to the web. Maps from Google quickly became so ubiquitous that a web without them is hard to imagine today.

A Treasure of Data for Future Generations

What began as impressive technology (much of it developed by other companies and then acquired by Google) combined with existing data sources (licensed by Google) has turned into the creation of massive sets of original and often unique data over the past seven years. It cannot be underestimated what an achievement the Street View project is. The early 21st century will go down in history as the first time entire countries were systematically photographed and these photos made available to the public. Assuming that this data will still be available in a hundred or a thousand years, what a tremendous treasure this is for future generations!1

And having mapped and photographed many of its most important markets, Google is not standing still but focusing on the entire world. In many countries, Google, with the help from their users, has created the best maps that are available for these locations. Credit for this must go the awesome Open Street Map project, too, of course.

While Open Street Map volunteers managed to create map data that rivals or even surpasses Google’s maps in many areas, I have no idea whether we will see a crowdsourced Street View competitor any time soon. And it’s even more unlikely for Google’s next big thing, 3D cityscapes. Using lots of money and some intelligent algorithm, we will soon be able to fly freely over select photorealistic cities.2 Again, imagine how valuable this data will be not only for us today but also for later generations.

Google Deserves Credit

No matter what Apple unveils tomorrow, Google deserves so much credit for all they have done in this space. And besides, to everyone who ridiculed Google for only announcing but not releasing any new features this week, that’s exactly what Apple will do: or do you think the news Maps app will be available immediately? It will surely be part of iOS 6, which surely will only be announced at WWDC, without a specific release date. Sound familiar?

So thank you, Google, for Maps.

  1. Except (partly) in Germany, where Google had to “pixelate” many Street View scenes due to unfounded privacy concerns. The result: no more Street View photography in Germany↩︎

  2. If the rumors can be believed, Apple will unveil a very similar feature tomorrow. ↩︎