A year ago, Google held a fancy venue in a New York museum to announce the next grand release of Google Earth. A complete re-write of the underlying application which finally unified the Google Maps (more current) mapping data with a formerly independent (and aging not-updated) dataset used by Google Earth on the desktop for years. The good news is that the application ran surprisingly well in Chrome and on Android (as mentioned in my review). The bad news, for a lot of veteran fans of Google Earth on the desktop, was that most of the tools most valued (measuring tools, content creation tools, GPS support, and much more), and a great deal of support for Google Earth content, was missing in the first release of the new platform. The focus for the first release was to get basic browsing, and to support the new “Voyager” exploration tools to allow more web-like dynamic content to overlay the geographic content to tell “stories”. I was assured by Google that a lot of effort was going in to incorporate missing power features for the fans of Google Earth. In the meantime, Google assured us they would continue to support the desktop version, and they have indeed (as mentioned here).
For a while after the event, I attempted to calm down the reactions from long-time fans. But, in Google’s attempt to highlight their “accomplishments” with the first release, they downplayed the value of the more powerful and useful version for the desktop on their home page with a single link (still true today) that said “Older version” (they changed that finally to say “Earth Pro for Desktop”). I suggested to them they should give it more prominence, but that didn’t really happen. And, the reality is that after waiting about 5 years for new Google Earth capabilities, the new version was a disappointment to its fans. Eventually, my frustration grew to a point that this blog was essentially stopped after 12 years of almost daily posts. After the wonderful way Google Earth grew in the first 8 years or so after it was launched, and the fantastic support Google gave to its huge growing fan base, it was disheartening to watch how this next phase in development started. I’ve been waiting for a sign that things would get better.
Unfortunately, there has been little sign of improvement to the Google Earth for Chrome/Mobile version as an application. Although, I’m sure they did a lot of behind-the-scenes work tweaking performance and fixing issues as people started using it. The biggest positive visible change I’ve noted was the addition of the new photos layer for the new Earth platform. But, there have been no additions of useful basic geographic tools as promised (rulers, GPS support, etc.). There were also a number of promoted content releases using Earth for Chrome like the Live Bear Cam, stories about the Amazon, and the expected release of the Apple IOS version of the new Earth app in August 2017.
The new photos layer is a sad comparison to the former Panoramio layer which had a vast curated collection of georeferenced photos globally. I used the Panoramio layer extensively to help research places we traveled around the world. But, early this year, the much-loved Panoramio layer in the desktop version of Google Earth Pro was mothballed in favor of this new layer. The old icons of the Panoramio photos can still be seen, but you can’t see the photos. And, it’s clear comparing the new photo icons that there were far more useful Panoramio photos (many locations have photos that the new layer does not). Rumor has it Google was going to incorporate many of the Panoramio photos in the new layer. But, now months later nothing visible has changed there.
Who knows, maybe Google is working hard on new exciting features for the new Chrome/Mobile platform? But, I’m not hearing about it on the ground or in rumors. And, yes, I’ve asked. I still regularly use the desktop version of Google Earth Pro. And, I do like using the web version if for no other reason than the fact it has more accurate map data to overlay on it, and because I’m impressed it runs so well in a browser. Maybe Google has continued to work on a strategy to port to other browsers. Maybe they have made a ton of progress on new features, but they just aren’t far enough along to release any of them.
I have this sense that the release of the new version has only depressed the former popularity of Google Earth only further. This despite Google search trends show it stagnating at most. In part, because nearly all the developers of the formerly more powerful desktop version have left since the development tools are no longer functioning, or have no promise of future support. And, also, because so many long-time fans have also gone missing. Or maybe because my blog is no longer active.
On the bright side, a different team at Google has done amazing work with Google Earth VR. Here is the official Google Earth VR website. It’s the most amazing new version of Google Earth I’ve seen in years. But, it’s use is sadly limited to a very small segment of people who have invested in VR for the desktop PCs (mostly Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but also a growing list of other headsets will be capable of supporting it). And, a growing number of venues (museums and VR arcades) offer Google Earth VR. Good news is that VR headset prices have come down a lot in the last year, and desktop PCs that support the platform are more common.
Finally, good news is that Google has continued to support the addition of more and better content to view in Google Earth (more Street View, more 3D Cities, etc.). It’s still the largest, most amazing view of the Earth you can get – outside of going places in person. I hold on to a few rays of hope.
About Frank Taylor
Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.