Google Releases Free Satellite Mapping
The feature, "Google Earth," which accesses a vast database compiled by Keyhole--the mapping company Google purchased in October--provides high-resolution satellite maps of addresses throughout the world. Users also can obtain driving directions overlayed onto the images; in addition, the program allows users to collect locations into a personalized search folder, and access them again in the future with one click.
While the visual features are impressive--including three-dimensional views of buildings and terrain, high-resolution captures of the entire globe, and the ability to "fly" over the map from location to location--some analysts say the new release doesn't offer many functional improvements over Google's local search feature, which also incorporates Keyhole's satellite images. "Once you sort of get beyond the initial 'wow' factor and the cool element of it--which may have a lot of PR value--it doesn't represent a substantial improvement of what's available online, in terms of the data and the functionality," said Kelsey Group analyst Greg Sterling.
Google also will face direct competition from Microsoft's upcoming Virtual Earth, which will be Web-based, as opposed to requiring user downloads. "Over time they're going to have to integrate more of the functionality into the Web rather than having it being a client-side download," Sterling predicted.
In addition to the free Google Earth download, Google also offers related premium programs, including Google Earth Plus, which for $20 adds GPS connectivity, a data importer, annotation tools, and higher-resolution printing. Another upgrade--Google Earth Pro--for $400 incorporates more of Keyhole's database, including layers showing parks, schools, airports, retail, and hospital zones; Earth Pro also allows users to import site plans, design sketches, and scan blueprints. Google also offers a variable-cost enterprise version of the software, which allows companies to purchase the program in a server box, integrate their own data into the program, and other customizable features.