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Hot on the Web

The world, on your PC

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 24, 2006
(Issue 2408, 'ET' Phone Home)

The last two weeks, we've taken Google to task for its complete and utter hypocrisy on the issues of privacy and free speech.

Today, we are here to praise Google.

Or, at least, to praise Google Earth.

Google Earth may turn out to be nothing less than the killer app to drive broadband subscriptions among those who don't care a whit about downloading music or video.

But even if not, Google Earth is among the very coolest online applications yet devised.

What is it?

Google Earth is to globes and atlases what the Internet itself is to research libraries. It is a virtual globe, but one that allows you to zoom in to within a few hundred feet of the surface.

In some select areas, you can even drop to the surface – or, in the Grand Canyon, below the surface! (Or at least the surrounding surface.)

Rotate the globe, even rotate your view (dropping down to have a more oblique angle). It is like one of these first-person shooter games like Half-Life or Halo expanded to our entire real-life planet.

Wow factor

Dropping into a 3-D map of the Grand Canyon or circling a 3-D version of Mt. St. Helen's is utterly remarkable. Typing in an address and seeing a globe spin until your view is directly above that spot, and then dropping down to the surface as if from a space capsule – zooming in from about 50 miles up to about 1,500 feet up – is startling.

Now, not every part of the globe as 3-D modeling. At least not yet. San Diego's Balboa Park or Point Loma are places locally that could obviously benefit from 3-D modeling – but such modeling is undoubtedly expensive and time-consuming. Still, one has to assume Google is going to continue adding to the parts of the Earth's surface that have full 3-D modeling until someday the whole planet is included. (And then the Moon, perhaps?)

Drawing on National Geographic databases, plus its own information, Google Earth contains options for all kinds of overlays – you can highlight buildings, mark restaurants, churches, schools, roads, railway lines. It's like a global map where you can turn any feature off or on instantly.

So Google Earth can be a roadmap or a natural feature map – with just a click of the mouse!


On the downside, the 11 Mb download of the program itself is prohibitive for most folks on dial-up. Nor is the streaming data while running Google Earth all that small – it takes a while to update even on a broadband connection.

Mostly, though, the biggest complaint to be found with Google Earth is that it's still buggy as all get-out. And once it bombs out on my WinXP P4 system, I have to re-boot before Google Earth will even run again.

Using the free version, I've not much room for complaint. But given that Google is selling various upgraded versions of Google Earth, a little more stability would seem to be in order.

The promise

Still, one gets the feeling that the present form of Google Earth is just a hint of what awaits. As more topographical information is integrated into the Google Earth database, as greater detail and close-up shots become available for more and more regions, the utility of Google Earth will only increase.

It's easy to foresee a time in the not-too-distant future where Google Earth can be a kind of all-in-one mapping service.

Already, the Google Earth Pro package adds in GPS interoperability for a small fee. How long can it possibly be before Google Earth includes real-time traffic reports for any city on the planet? How long before high-orbit geosynchronous and low-orbit satellite data is combined in Google Earth for a real-time snapshot of our planet?

Of course, there will need to be commercial applications as well as a free public reference tool for any of these things to happen. But it's not hard to imagine shipping companies wanting to let customers see exactly where a package is, or travel services showing the family exactly where grandma and grandpa's cruise ship is in the Caribbean.

Google is on to something special with Google Earth; only time will tell just how special it turns out to be.