Google and SketchUp

By Gary Smith

Coming into work on Tuesday morning started out like any other morning ... start the coffee and read the email that has come in overnight. Before long, however, things changed as word of the acquisition of SketchUp by Google consumed my thought process. The storm clouds were building in my head. My company, Green Mountain GeoGraphics, Ltd., has been an ESRI Business Partner since 1988 and for the last five years has really concentrated on the development of 3D GIS capabilities. Key to our success has been the creative and forward thinking folks at @Last Software (now Google).

Almost three years ago @Last created a free plug-in that allows SketchUp to capture data from ArcGIS (e.g. a building footprint) and open it in SketchUp. Once in SketchUp, the rest of the building can be created and the results saved back to an ESRI 3D data format (multipatch). What makes SketchUp so special and important to our work is that this is the only software package that actually creates multipatch features. So, as one might imagine, my anxiety level had become a bit elevated out of fear that SketchUp might be removed from the market place. After all, it was just this past December that Microsoft purchased GeoTango and promptly took its software offerings off the market. That software was also used to facilitate 3D feature development.

I suspect my initial fears were shared by people in the architectural and landscape architectural communities who had come to see SketchUp as a very productive and affordable tool for their work. Having attended the first (and last?) SketchUp user group meeting last fall and being one of only three GIS types in attendance, I saw first-hand the affection these other disciplines have for SketchUp. In the back of my mind I was now beginning to envision the army of SketchUp users we could assemble to march on Google Headquarters to demand the return of SketchUp. How dare they take it away!

Fortunately, as I finished my first cup of coffee of the morning, I came to my senses. I realized that Google was, in fact, just like all the rest of us SketchUp lovers and locking the technology away was not the goal. Such action would stop user input, and cease the production of 3D features that I am sure Google would ultimately like to see on the Google Earth landscape. Besides, SketchUp was selling very well and was, I am sure, producing a nice positive cash flow. So why turn it off? That was not going to happen.

One thing that I always enjoyed in my interactions with the folks at @Last Software was their fun loving nature and true desire to be good citizens and to help people. I cannot believe they would sell out to anyone who would seriously compromise their reputation and values. @Last Software wanted to bring 3D to everyone (my kind of people). That is a big task for a small, but growing, company. With the acquisition by Google, SketchUp can now concentrate on the "3D" part and it looks like Google will bring "everyone" (the company has the development resources to do so). This acquisition by Google is starting to look OK.

I have seen and heard some speculation that perhaps Google has acquired SketchUp to jump into the CAD arena. As a SketchUp user, I think this could not be farther from the truth and the folks at Bentley and Autodesk need not reach for the antacid tablets any time soon. SketchUp is not CAD software, though I am sure many CAD users start much of their work with SketchUp to experiment and prototype their thoughts and then export their work to the CAD software of their choice.

So, why did Google really want SketchUp? The answer, I believe, lies in the same initial fear that I had on Tuesday morning when I first learned of the sale. Was the software that I needed going to be taken away? From Google’s standpoint, the concern might be that someone else would buy @Last Software and they would lose this terrific solution to build 3D content for Google Earth. Now, that can’t happen. Believe me, if I had the money to make the purchase, I would have done the same thing to assure my business success.

There is still one more important voice to be heard from and that is ESRI, and how it feels about this acquisition. @Last Software was an ESRI Business Partner and as I stated earlier, SketchUp is the only software package available to produce 3D models in the ESRI multipatch format. On more than one occasion, ESRI staffers have made it very clear to me that they have no intention of creating software to model buildings and other landscape features in 3D. They have elected to rely on SketchUp for this task. SketchUp, now with Google's resources, can continue to meet this need to the mutual benefit of both companies. It is important to note that when we are using SketchUp to create 3D content for use in ArcGIS, the option to also save to the Google Earth format is only a different “save as” menu pick away. In reality, Google Earth needs the GIS data from ArcGIS to help build content for Google Earth. Will there be overlap between these two companies? Sure, but a little friendly competition never hurt anyone, especially us users.

All in all, this purchase of @Last Software by Google can be a very good thing, particularly for those of us who see 3D as the future of GIS. As long as the software remains in the marketplace and continues to grow in functionality, everyone wins. What’s more, I see an expanded audience of architects and developers realizing that they can use the 3D GIS and/or Google Earth to display their work for public review and comment. If there is a down side to this acquisition, it lies in the fact that the people at @Last Software are now restricted in what they can say about the future of their software. This is due to the fact that Google is a publicly traded corporation and is subject to federal regulations. I will miss those discussions. But if the result is a more productive product, I can live with that result and feel confident that 3D GIS is now here for everyone!

Published Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

Written by Gary Smith

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