Google and Microsoft: Further Disruption Ahead

By Adena Schutzberg and Joe Francica

Users of @Last's, now Google's, SketchUp and Vexcel's, soon to be Microsoft's (pending government approvals), UltraCam ground stations and other imagery and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) processing tools are scratching their heads this week. What will happen to these products? That's one question to ponder. Google's newest employees have maintained that SketchUp will stay SketchUp and not to worry. Microsoft has been mum, just as it was on the acquisition of GeoTango late last year.

Let's look at these acquisitions from the other side, that is, from the Google and Microsoft side. Several things are going on at once: there's a move further into geodata creation tools; a potential expansion of the user bases of the products (especially SketchUp); and perhaps some stealing of market share, reputation and money from existing geospatial players.

Google and Geodata
Google's use of geodata to date has been via licensing. In one sense, the company simply republishes data from a variety of public and private providers in Google Local and Google Earth. The company certainly does some work on knitting the datasets together but for the most part, the company is not in the data creation business. It's been in the classic position, defined by Tim O'Reilly, of being not the owner of the data (it came "too late" to that party) but rather the organizer/indexer/publisher of that data. And, most would agree, Google does a fine job in that role. Google is good at it, not just in the realm of geodata, but also for the Web in general, shopping, images, etc.

That said, Google is in the data-creation-tool business in other areas. For example, Google acquired Blogger, a blogging platform. That's a tool used to create content; content that Google can then organize/index/publish. Google acquired Picasa, a digital photo management tool. While you don't create images in Picasa, you do add content, from your digital camera to your hard drive. Then Picasa (Google) can organize/index/publish that content. Gmail is another tool to create content; content Google can organize/index/publish. We could go on, but we think you see where we are heading.

Now, there's a bit of fogginess in these products in how “publicly" the content is shared. Blogs are typically public. Picasa will keep your images on your desktop or upload them to the Web. E-mail is relatively private. Still, the boundaries of private and public are being shattered via tools for music sharing (Napster et. al.) and image sharing (Flickr, et. al.).

Google is counting on a mix of private and public content to make its acquisition of @Last and SketchUp successful. The vision parallels these other offerings: some content will be kept with the individual and other content will be shared. SketchUp buildings might populate a virtual globe, Google Earth, and perhaps myriad other worlds for gaming and other pursuits. We can imagine free layers of 3D SketchUp buildings that individuals, companies, or even Google would host to make Google Earth more representative of the real thing. Other layers might require a micro payment or a subscription for access. Some buildings would be proprietary with appropriate licensing, others would be open source. What Google, via SketchUp, will do in time is just what these other services mentioned above have done: they've captured the creativity, energy and, frankly, free labor of the planet to build content.

Certainly, there are issues for populating Google Earth, especially if Google wants it to meet some accuracy requirements. How will areas be kept up to date? Who would, for example, knock down all the virtual buildings when the next Katrina hits? We have a vision of a Wiki/open source sort of process where everyone can make changes, submit content, but not everyone can commit those changes. How Google will manage this, or what organization it might buy to do that management, remains to be seen. Still, that's where we think the acquisition is headed. And, we think it's pretty exciting.

Now, is it realistic? Some CAD editors have suggested that Google may be in over its head taking on a CAD company since it doesn't fully appreciate the complexity of the technology. We in the geospatial arena know how hard it's been to have multiple editors update utility networks without banging into one another. There have been many discussions of check in/check out/long transactions/approve/commit in our years working at GIS software firms. Don't forget that the people making the changes to these maps were paid professionals, not potentially everyone on the planet! Defining and maintaining such processes were, and still are, complicated. But, these are new times, with new technologies, so we are happy to hope for the best.

Microsoft and Geodata
Microsoft, we'd argue, has been in the geodata business in a more traditional way than Google. The company has sold packaged map data in its consumer products (Streets and Trips), and later for the small business desktop product MapPoint, for more than a decade. Those eventually turned into a Web service and now into Virtual Earth, which powers Live Local.

That said, like Google, the company licenses imagery data, but from different vendors (Microsoft looks to GeoEye and Pictometry for imagery, Google to DigitalGlobe and EarthSat). There are some obvious differences in what the two companies acquired in the last week. Google acquired an inexpensive, easy-to-use vector creation tool. Microsoft acquired a company that offers software products in image/digital elevation model (DEM) analysis and exploitation, and hardware products including a digital sensor, a film scanner and ground stations. Just to be clear, non-professionals need not apply to use Vexcel's toolbox, while even youngsters can get the hang of SketchUp.

So, what did Microsoft want from the deal? The processing technology? The staff? The hardware side? Our sense is that the first two are most important, in particular a product called FotoG, which "allows users to take random hand-held digital pictures, extract highly accurate measurements, convert them to 3D, using a CAD program, and produce models quickly and easily." Basically, it's a way to make 3D models from imagery, something related to one of GeoTango's product. The sensor and ground stations? It's hard to imagine Microsoft will want to be in those businesses, so our guess, just now, is those will be sold off in time.

Geo-specific phototextures added to a 3D urban model derived from satellite imagery using Vexcel's FotoG close range photogrammetry system. (Click for larger image)

A Broader Perspective
Let's take one step further away from these events and place them in the context of the development of the geospatial marketplace. The development and acquisitions at both Google and Microsoft parallel the historical development of the geospatial marketplace almost perfectly.

From their beginnings in the late 60's and early 70's, GIS and CAD were primarily visualization tools and quickly thereafter became data acquisition tools. (Raster and vector domains were served by different software solutions at that point.) Then came the need to process and integrate other data types including terrain and remotely sensed imagery in the 80's. The 90's saw the move from file-based systems, and most GIS technology at least, moved to relational database management systems. The next problem to tackle was the integration of disparate data types.

The acquisitions by Microsoft and Google are not merely market development efforts but true disruptive invasions of the traditional geospatial marketplace. Perhaps this is "stage two" in GIS market development, where CAD becomes more closely integrated with GIS. What's next? Query and analysis. Why? Because, just as was the case for traditional GIS, the market (be it consumer or professional) will demand that additional functionality. And that functionality, we need to remember, presents an opportunity perfectly suited for Google, already the most widely used search (read 'query') tool. Microsoft is positioned well here too, since it sells a very powerful relational database. As we've noted before, a mashup of Google with Oracle Spatial links a powerful visualization engine with query and data storage. Oracle is already tackling enterprise search, as it announced recently. These events simply highlight that we are just a short hop away from a major disruption in the geospatial market.

Published Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg and Joe Francica

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