Annotating the planet with Google Maps

Open, XML-based design makes it a service factory for the geospatial Web

My previous column on Google Maps provoked an unusually strong response. First up was Wil Rivers, who pointed out that Telcontar’s Drill Down Server is the engine that does the heavy lifting on the back end. Next was a series of gripes about data quality and completeness.

“The map location came right up, but the address was off by a half mile,” one reader said.

“Wake me up when it covers the scope of MapQuest and MultiMap -- i.e., this planet and not just one country,” said another.

“There was a road that doesn’t really exist,” yet another said. “If the database is this out of whack with reality, it’s not going to be very useful.”

Before I could respond to these points, all of which are completely valid, Craig Thrall sent me the bombshell that blew up my schedule for the next 24 hours. “A friend of mine figured out how to download Google directions into his GPS,” Craig wrote, “and also use the Google Maps front end to display his GPS.”

The friend is Matt King, and his proof of concept is a JavaScript bookmarklet that uses Google Maps to display a walking tour of Beverly Hills, with waypoints labeled and linked to photos. If you try it, be sure to check out the black-and-white bunny sitting on the tree lawn of N. Rodeo Drive between Park and Carmelita.

I always knew there would come a moment when I had to have a GPS receiver. This was it. My first thought was to use my LG VX4400 cellphone, which has a built-in GPS chip. Although Roger Binns has open-sourced every other aspect of that phone with BitPim, I’ve yet to find a way to display and remember GPS waypoints. So while I’m not normally an impulse gadget buyer, I picked up a Garmin Geko 101 and went for a walk.

When I finished making the interactive version of my neighborhood tour, along with a screencast, it was clear that Google Maps is every bit as revolutionary as my first instincts told me. Not because Google invented a new geospatial engine or compiled better data. They didn’t. But simply -- and yet profoundly -- because Google Maps is a framework we can all use to annotate the physical world.

In the very near future, billions of people will be roaming the planet with GPS devices. Clouds of network connectivity are forming over our major cities and will inevitably coalesce. The geoaware Web isn’t a product we buy; it’s an environment we colonize. There will always be markets for proprietary data. But the real action will be in empowering people to create their own services, with their own data, for their friends, family, and business associates. Google Maps isn’t just a service, it’s a service factory.

Radical openness is the key. It’s been only two weeks since it launched and already the colonization has begun. Thanks to open XML data formats and open Web programming interfaces, people have figured out how to animate routes, create custom routes with their own GPS data, and display GPS data in real time.

Microsoft could have enabled these same kinds of things years ago. Its TerraServer has been up and running since 1998. But despite Steve Ballmer’s infamous monkey-dance chant, developers haven’t flocked to TerraServer. What’s Google’s secret? Web DNA and no Windows tax.