Houston, we have a problem! The technology that brought mainstream 3D geospatial visualization to the web browser is rendering on borrowed time.
It appears that the Google Earth Plug-in is on the brink of deprecation.
Google has not made any official announcements about deprecating the Earth Plug-in, but the Google Chrome team has continued to push forward with their advancement of web standards.
In the Chrome team’s drive for modernization, they have announced that in September of this year Chrome will no longer support legacy plug-ins. As if to leave no doubt, they specifically mentioned our beloved Earth Plug-in.
The world has certainly changed since that day in October of 2008 when the Earth Plug-in was first released to the world. Back then there were no iPads, and Android releases weren’t yet named after desserts. In the time since, mobile has become pervasive and the web has been optimized for small screens; legacy browser plug-ins have become an anachronism.
I am personally still in denial about this harsh reality. I spent many hours of my life developing with the Earth Plug-in and showing off nifty 3D browser-based demos. It is hard to believe that those glory days of visualization are fading to memory.
As I march toward acceptance of this prolific deprecation, I am starting to date 3D technologies again. I have played with Cesium, but she is rough around the edges and has the usability of an old handheld GPS unit. I have thought about licensing something from a traditional GIS vendor, but can’t justify the expense. In a moment of desperation, I even gave World Wind another, albeit fleeting, look.
None of those options are bad, they are just different, and won’t work for my 3D geo visualization needs.
My sincerest hope is that Google will announce an API for their WebGL instance of the “new Google Maps”. Although, even if a new 3D API is announced soon, I assume it won’t have feature parity with the Earth Plug-in, and won’t support the same instantiation and interaction methods.
That is to say, whatever 3D greatness Google releases next won’t be a plug-and-play replacement for the Earth Plug-in, and will require website administrators to refactor their code and redevelop their current offerings.
In summary, as I reflect back on all of the panning and zooming I have done in the Earth Plug-in, I am comforted knowing that I am a better neogeographer today for having crossed paths with this nifty piece of technology. On a personal level, I really hope that the Earth Plug-in enjoys her retirement.
Afterthought: It is unclear what a one year deprecation policy actually means when an entire class of technology is overcome by external events.
Update: It is important to note that Firefox has also started to distance themselves from NPAPI plug-ins like the Google Earth Plug-in: https://blog.mozilla.org/security/2014/02/28/update-on-plugin-activation/