Killer Maps

Essential reading for understanding the transformation of the Internet from 'web-sites' to a global, location-based 'metadata layer'.

Killer Maps

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are racing to transform online maps into full-blown browsers, organizing information -- and, of course, ads -- according to geography. The likely winner? You.

By Wade Roush

Read/Write Maps
"I describe [Google Earth] as a browser for the earth," John Hanke, general manager of Google's Keyhole group, says of Google Earth. Keyhole, where Hanke was CEO until Google acquired the company last year, developed the software upon which Google Earth is based, mostly for customers in defense, engineering, and real-estate investing. Now that Keyhole is part of Google, the idea is to use geography as a fundamental structural principle for the entire Web. "The interesting part is not necessarily the core map but the information from the Web that's now being organized geographically, so that you can get to it and understand it in its proper context," says Hanke.

It's such a potentially lucrative idea, in fact, that Microsoft has followed suit, introducing its own search-and-mapping service called MSN Virtual Earth. The service offers satellite photos, zooming and panning abilities, and interactive search listings resembling those of Google Earth, but it may actually reach a wider audience than Google's product, since it runs inside a browser window rather than needing to be downloaded as a separate application. Yahoo, too, is in the game: last year it introduced maps that provide, say, the locations of all the coffee shops with Wi-Fi hot spots within a particular neighborhood.

The mapping revolution could, in short, change the way we think of the World Wide Web. We've long spoken of the Web as if it were a place--with "sites" that we "go to"-- but as places go, it's been a rather abstract, disembodied one. Now that's changing. Geotagging means the Web is slowly being wedded with real space, enhancing physical places with information that can deepen our experiences of them and making computing into a more "continuous" part of our real lives .

For example, users of smart phones and wireless PDAs with location technologies such as Global Positioning System chips may soon be able to automatically retrieve stories, photos, videos, or historical accounts related to their current locations, along with ads and listings for nearby shopping, dining, entertainment, and business outlets.

And the information is already flowing both ways: users can upload their own texts, photographs, and other data to the Internet and pin them to specific latitudes and longitudes. "Historically, maps were a 'read-only' medium," says Schuyler Erle, chief engineer at Locative Technologies and coauthor of Mapping Hacks. "Maps were only created by professional cartographers and professional GIS [geographic information systems] people. What has happened because of Moore's Law is that people now have the computing power on their desktops to manage the vast amounts of data that are required for digital cartography. Maps are increasingly a 'read-write' medium. That changes how we interact with them and the impact they can have on our everyday lives."

Map Mash-Ups
Even on the surface, it's clear that Google Maps goes much further than older interactive map sites. The stunning satellite views, along with the ability to drag the map in any direction without having to wait for the page to refresh, are the most obvious advances. The shaded pop-up balloons pointing to the locations turned up in local searches--Google calls them "info windows"--are also a pleasing touch.

Google is so eager to let outside programmers experiment with its mapping platform, in fact, that it released an official API on June 30, meaning hackers would no longer have to waste time on reverse-engineering. That's led to an even bigger wave of Google Maps creations, from the practical to the disturbing. At, you can see gasoline prices from plotted on a Google map, directing you to the lowest-priced pumps in your area.

Geography as Context
To use the Google Maps API, developers must agree not to use the service for commercial purposes, and so far, even Google has refrained from placing ads on Google Maps pages.

But for companies exploring the Internet for the next big business opportunity, the geospatial Web is the equivalent of a virgin continent waiting to be planted with billboards. The attraction is especially great for companies in the search business, for one simple reason: interactive maps have the potential to greatly extend the power of contextual advertising--the engine that drives the search industry and accounts for Google's ever rising revenues.

We may be able to communicate instantly with friends halfway around the globe, but we're still fleshly creatures who must fulfill our basic needs locally. If you're new to a particular area, looking at a map is the most natural way in the world to search out local services. In this case, the "context" for contextual ads is no longer a list of keywords but a location--meaning that the primary measure of an ad's relevance to the user is simply proximity, with no fancy psychographic algorithms required.

Annotating the Planet
As the big three vie for Web users' loyalty, they're likely to introduce more ways for people to import their own data and see it displayed on professional-looking maps. Google Earth Plus, an enhanced subscription version of the program, allows users to upload and view data collected by their GPS units, such as "tracklogs," series of virtual bread crumbs showing where the user has been.

Siemens, meanwhile, is developing software that will let a GPS-enabled mobile device associate notes with specific coordinates; when someone else with a similarly programmed gadget approaches the coordinates, the note appears on his or her screen. A tourist bureau might "label" a particular spot along San Francisco's Embarcadero as the site of a fatal duel in August 1879. John Udell, a columnist for InfoWorld, has coined a phrase for this phenomenon: "annotating the planet."

It's a trend that the main providers of mapping platforms have every incentive to encourage. After all, as the history of the Web itself has shown, interesting content draws more traffic, which drives more click-throughs. "The world is really dense with information," says Schuyler Erle. "Access to ubiquitous networking and location-finding services means that we can take that information and make it accessible in the places we are actually in, when we need it, and that allows us to make much more intelligent decisions on the spot, at that time."

Every page on the Web has a location, in the form of a URL. Now every location can have a Web page--indeed, an infinite stack of them. That may sound like a recipe for information overload. But in fact, it means that navigating both the Web and the real geography around us is about to become a much richer experience, rife with occasions for on-the-spot education and commerce. It means that we will be able to browse the Web--and the virtual earth encompassed within it--simply by walking around.


  1. If you haven't yet, you really need to read "Snowcrash" by Neal Stephenson. Seriously, you won't regret it.



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