[Update: Google's Brian McClendon (who leads the Google Earth, Maps, Street View and other related products) has publicly stated (on the 3rd of March, 2014) that Google plans to continue supporting Google Earth and KML. Good news!]
(This post is by Frank Taylor, publisher and founder of the Google Earth Blog (GEB). For the past 4+ years I have been traveling around the world on a sailboat called Tahina and documenting our experiences with Google Earth and other mapping and photography tools from Google. You can view and follow these experiences at TahinaExpedition.com. During my travels, I asked my friend, and fellow Google Earth fan, Mickey Mellen to keep the Google Earth Blog going. I think he’s been doing a great job!)
It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post on GEB. But, I have been following both the blog and Google Earth closely. I had intended to do more writing during the past year, but frankly I’ve been seeing some rather negative signs in Google’s mapping technology and have been reluctant to mention them waiting for more positive news. Unfortunately, the trends just seem to keep getting worse.
Before I dwell on the negative news, let me just say that I still believe that Google Earth continues to serve as an invaluable tool for visualizing the Earth (and other planets) and for creating and sharing maps and other content. The content and the visualization capabilities are still amazing. I’m still a huge fan, I just wish that Google would continue to devote itself to pushing the technology forward.
Google’s pace of development for new Google Earth technology has been dropping. For a long time, many of us who follow the technology have suspected Google would continue to migrate features into the Google Maps platform. However, despite the recent release of the “new” Google Maps for desktop, the news continues to get worse. Maybe Google is developing something new in the Google Earth vein, but, if so, they have been very quiet about it.
Here are some things to note about Google Maps and Earth developments:
1) Google Earth on the desktop has not seen a major new release since February of 2009 when Google release version 5.0. Version 5 introduced major new features such as Historical Imagery, the Mars mode, new 3D terrain, the ability to record tours, and a host of new support features for developers. All the versions for Google Earth on the desktop since that time have only added a few new features, interface tweaks, and bug fixes. No new major push for improving the technology or adding new capabilities. During this time, development focus seemed to be on the mobile mapping platforms (more on this below). Some bugs in Google Earth have remained for years now (one despite my having reported it multiple times – an easy to fix bug in Google Earth’s flight simulator).
2) Support for GE developers has dwindled. Evidence for this can be seen by the drop in news about new applications using Google Earth, the plugin, or KML. The new Google Maps version does not directly support the old “My Maps (originally called My Places)” for creating custom maps. It now uses Google Maps Engine which doesn’t even support KML – you can’t import a KML file into Maps Engine (although you can import My Maps, but you can’t create new My Maps). What’s up with that? Instead of more support on the Google Maps platform for Google Earth features (like the fundamental KML standard), they aren’t even supporting it? Very few developers of the Google Earth platform, who regularly appeared in GEB in the past, have released anything new in recent years. The GE plugin is apparently dying a quiet death, there are no signs Google is trying to replace it with something new. Some developers are migrating to other non-Google platforms.
3) Marketing: Since 2008, Google’s main platform for sharing news related to Google Maps and Earth technology has been the Google LatLong Blog. In recent months, the number of posts have dropped dramatically on their blog. Also, activity on the social network accounts has also dropped. It’s a bad sign that even Google isn’t marketing their Maps and Earth efforts as frequently.
4) In my opinion, Google’s support for active users of their mapping platforms has also been trending downward. Google put a big emphasis on crowd-sourcing as a way to generate new content in the early days of these platforms. And, to Google’s credit, they did a lot to support the communities they helped create to do these things in the first few years. Understandably, technology has enabled Google to do some of these things without the need for crowdsourcing. For example, when Google sold Sketchup – the 3D modeling platform Google bought to encourage crowd-sourcing of 3D buildings for Google Earth/Maps. Instead Google is now generating 3D Building models in house using photogrammetry automation technologies. They no longer accept 3D buildings built by users for inclusion in Google Earth. Another example is photos. The Panoramio and PicasaWeb platforms that form the basis of geo-tagged photo layers for Maps and Earth. We haven’t seen a lot of new features on those platforms recently, and I suspect they will somehow migrate this to the Google+ photo platform in the future. I’m worried a lot will be lost in the transition. Meanwhile, they have put increased efforts instead in Street View technologies bringing automated photos in-house again. The Google Earth Community discussion forums migrated to a new Google-built platform a few years ago. My sense is that participation dropped significantly in the transition – although, these other trends above have probably contributed. Last reports I have is that Google is still supporting crowd-sourcing for map building in countries that otherwise have no data available.
5) The mobile platform has probably been a big distraction resulting in a lot of these negative trends on the desktop and for Google Earth in particular. The Google Maps app has certainly been a major win for Google in the last couple of years. It was so popular that when Apple tried to remove Google Maps from iOS and replace it with their own inferior app they had major backlash. Google’s new Maps app was quickly the most-downloaded app on the iOS platform when it was released. Google has continued to devote a lot of attention to the Maps platform on Mobile for both Android and iOS. However, the primary focus is mostly about navigation and finding places – not so much about creating maps, sharing, and visualizing content by other people, or supporting third-party maps applications. The Google Earth for Mobile is ok for basic visualization, but support for creating and importing maps/KML has always been a weakness on mobile. Also, the 3D capability while present, is awkward to use on the mobile app IMO.
These are just a few of the things I’ve noticed. Maybe other people can add their thoughts in the comments below. Please tell me if my analysis is off base, I will gladly retract if there are facts showing I’m wrong.
In closing, let me say that Google has been a fantastic company for advancing the pace of mapping and 3D visualization technologies. Some of the smartest people in the world work there. And they proved in the first few years of Google Earth that they could amaze everyone. I’m hoping they will pull a new genie out of the lamp and introduce some major new advances in both visualization and mapping technologies in the near future. I think there is still plenty of new things that can be done with the wealth of content Google has for geo-spatial, especially with the continued advances in computer graphics, processors, sensors, mobile, and Internet bandwidth. Whether that would be a new Google Earth (how about Google Universe?), VR, or something totally new, I would be thrilled to see something that would be as life-changing as Google Earth was when it came out in 2005. Come on Google, let’s see what you can do!