In 2018 all of us have access to the whole world in our smartphones, with Google Maps and Apple Maps being installed on every Android and iOS smartphone in the world. Today, you can just make a few taps and you’re set to go anywhere. You can discover new places in a couple of seconds and you can roam the maps and Street View the same way some of us roam the wilderness of Wikipedia, one page after another until we realize it’s 3 am already and we must go to bed.
At the turn of the 21st-century things were radically different. There were no social networks, smartphones were owned mostly by tech geeks, and digital maps had to be printed before you could use them. Yup, Multimap and MapQuest worked in a way that you had to select the part of the map you wanted, and then print it along with directions to your destination (which also had to be entered with a street address or a zip code). Imagine that instead of taking out your phone, entering an address and then simply following turn-by-turn navigation instructions you had to print a map!
And then in 2003 Google decided to enter the world of digital maps.
The Birth of Google Maps
Google is all about the web and the company realized that they want to offer the public a map-related app, but the problem was the company didn’t have the talent needed to make the idea reality. And then they just realized that a couple of acquisitions might do the trick.
The first one was getting mapping software startup called Where 2 technologies. The company wanted to provide a better map browsing experience, incorporating new Web 2.0 technologies in order to make a revolution in digital maps. One of the Where 2 co-founders, Noel Gordon, explained that “In 2003, it was the World Wide Wait. It was prehistoric. You clicked on a map, made a cup of coffee and then came back.”
Google Maps Site Back in The Day
Where 2 wanted to incorporate Web 2.0 tech and its other two co-founders, Lars and Jens Eilstrup Rasmussen, pitched Google an interesting idea. What if, instead of showing a boring static map they could offer a scrollable map that would load new areas while scrolling; that could be zoomed without waiting minutes for new, detailed map to be shown; that could be searchable by simply entering text and getting results directly on the map? The team wanted to make a desktop app, but Google was a web company, so they had to make a web-based app.
And they did it, with one important feature. Instead of waiting for the sections of the map to be loaded, Where 2 enabled for the data to be fetched in the background giving users an uninterrupted experience on a web page, which was something new and extremely exciting. The updated idea was pitched again to Google and the company took the bait. The first Google Maps puzzle was obtained.
The next one was a company called Keyhole, which already had a working product. Their satellite map Windows application was a revolutionizing product that offered satellite maps that could be zoomed in order to show detailed view, all while not waiting for the map to load. Sounds familiar, right? Keyhole developed EarthViewer, later funded by In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm run by the CIA. The agency later used EarthViewer for planning missions in Iraq, for monitoring movements, planning routes, and looking for changes in topography, notifying of enemy movements.
EarthViewer, Made by Keyhole
The company managed to create a technology capable of stitching a huge number of satellite images together into a huge map of the world, making them scrollable and allowing users to zoom in; allowing them to look at detailed satellite view. The meeting where the Google acquisition happened was actually about deciding the future of Picasa. And then Sergey Brin showed people present at the meeting a cool new software. They went crazy after seeing the app. Everyone wanted for Sergey to find their house on the satellite map and after a couple of minutes the decision has been made. A while later Google bought Keyhole, which would later work on the Satellite part of Google Maps. Their EarthViewer software will ultimately become Google Earth.
Finally, we have Zipdash, a startup working on mobile traffic application capable of estimating traffic delays in real time. Their app also used user data in order to improve their traffic delay calculations. Google wanted them, and it got them for two million dollars. Just to compare how much the mapping market grew in less than a decade Google bought Waze, a company that did something pretty similar to what Zipdash did, for one billion dollars.
Google finally had all three pieces of their web maps puzzle so it was time for the three teams to make the actual product. Later on the three would make Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Maps for mobile.
Launch and the slow climb towards stars
Google Maps officially launched on February 8, 2005. The site took huge traffic the day before the official release because someone posted the site on Slashdot (a Reddit before Reddit), with millions of people trying out the new site. If you follow the link, you can read comments posted fifteen years ago and see how big Google Maps really were at the time. People were amazed by the scrollable nature of maps and the fact they loaded almost instantly, something we take for granted today.
Google Maps weren’t the first to offer this kind of digital map because Yahoo Maps was relaunched in 2004. But, Google Maps introduced digital maps to the broad public, and the site soon became a go-to address for anyone wanting to browse maps or get directions. The initial version only had the map of the US, but soon more maps were added, as the company bought map data from providers. The site received driving directions, and finally, it received a satellite layer, which made Google Maps one of the most popular sites in the world by 2007.
Google Maps for Mobile on a Symbian Device
Getting map data and satellite images were very expensive, but people at Google really wanted for their latest project to be a success, so they decided to invest huge sums of money, allowing Google Maps to get map and satellite data for the whole world.
On the other side, Google Maps for Mobile wasn’t a big success mostly thanks to the fact that smartphones weren’t nearly as popular as they are today. The app was available for Symbian smartphones, but it didn’t really start to grow until Google offered the app for BlackBerry devices. And then Google and Apple inked a deal, making Google Maps a default maps app for the iPhone. Back in 2007, Apple didn’t have a similar product, so they had to give Google Maps the spot on the iPhone.
This made Google Maps for Mobile extremely popular, and the deal created a huge and loyal following for the app which will be of great help when Google launch their own smartphone OS, Android. Apple and Google were in an uneasy alliance, with Apple didn’t let Google to work on the interface and refusing to hand over user data to make Google Maps more accurate. The deal ended in 2012 when Apple offered their own Apple Maps, which took a few years before getting near the quality of Google Maps.
The birth of Android and the presence of Google Maps on the iPhone gave Google Maps a huge push forward. Smartphones became mainstream, and everyone soon had one. And one of the most important app on each and every smartphone was (and still is) a digital maps app. And Google had a perfect one in the form of Google Maps for Mobile. This made Google Maps extremely popular, and it broadened the user base. Now, not only you could search maps on your browser, but you could also use them on your phone.
Today, Google Maps for Mobile is an app that gives you info about local stores, restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, and all other POIs (point-of-interest). The app is like a city guide for every city in the world. When on vacation you can just take out your phone and find out all about the city you’re in just by opening Google Maps.
Apple deal along with the rise of Android was the defining time period for Google Maps for becoming one of the most popular services in the world. Google managed to rise above all others and today is the biggest map provider in the world. The company has two satellites for capturing new satellite images and is updating its maps and satellite view all the time. In less than five years Google Maps took over the digital map world, and we all use it today. With billions of daily users, Google Maps is a behemoth and one of the most important parts of the biggest internet company in the world.
But Google Maps isn’t just about maps and satellite imagery; Street View is also there.
Street View, or how to provide virtual travels
Street View upgraded Google Maps and transformed it from a simple yet revolutionary way to search maps and get directions to a platform where users can discover new places from ground level. If you ever wanted to know how it would look if you would visit Time Square, Google Street View can help with that. If you wanted to find out your new neighborhood before moving to a flat in a new city, just visit Google Maps, enter Street View and find out where the nearest grocery store is, where you can wait for the bus, and where you can jog during mornings. Google Street View offered something never seen before, Pushing Google Maps to new heights.
The project launched in 2007 with the core team brought from Stanford, with the acquisition of a startup called VuTool, which used cameras mounted on cars to take images of the cars’ surroundings. The project was limited to the US, offering views from biggest cities, but it soon spread out to other continents.
Street View is an ever-expanding project with new imagery being taken every day. The project is an invasion of privacy, with many countries showing concerns over cars taking images of people, houses, and basically all objects on streets. This led Google to blur all faces and license plates from Street View images, but Street View cars are still unwelcome in certain countries and areas. For instance, the known incident when Street View cars took data from home Wi-Fi networks did lots of damage to Google, with Street View project being banned in Germany. All Street Map view you can see in Germany is around ten years old; the country doesn’t allow Google to capture new images.
Aside from offering a cool way to take on virtual tours all over the world, Street View plays many other roles. All cars and human operators have a GPS device with them, collecting GPS data, tracing routes and providing the company first-hand map data. Also, all captured road signs, house numbers, and other objects are used to give Google Maps better accuracy regarding speed limits, unique street rules, making the platform more knowledgeable about local street rules.
Google used human recruits, snowmobiles, trikes, trolleys, tricycles, boats and underwater cameras to take images of parks, campuses, mountain slopes, rivers, national parks, areas where roads cannot be found such as Arctic and Antartica, with the goal of mapping the whole world.
The future of Google Maps is indoor maps and indoor Street View. Google already has maps of many airports, shopping malls, museums, train stations, markets, various buildings, etc. Now Google is trying to offer more and more indoor maps, so people don’t have to be lost in huge malls, museums, or to end up missing their flight because there are too many gates on an airport. Another major task is offering 3D images of every city in the world. Planes owned by Google already fly all over the world, with more and more cities getting 3D maps, so if your city doesn’t have 3D buildings wait a bit, it will get them eventually.
Google Maps started small but is now a humongous digital map platform used by billions of people daily. It already has hundreds of different features, but people at Google always strive in adding something new. And because of this, it is important for it to have competition. There are a couple of real competitors to Google Maps, and we will talk about each of them in our next article.