The Technology Behind Google Maps

By Adena Schutzberg

Telcontar Inside
Last week Google quietly rolled out Google Maps.There was a definite buzz about the technology (DHTML and JavaScript are key parts), the look (very pretty) and the speed (very fast).While many early users of the application simply like to point to Google and say, "They are smart," there are players behind the scenes.

In the case of Google Maps one key player is Telcontar.The world, at least the mapping one, was agog when Yahoo! "rolled its own" mapping solution, Yahoo! Maps, on the company's technology back in 2002.So, perhaps it's no surprise that Google (and Rand McNally and Ask Jeeves) also have it tucked into their websites.

Telcontar's Place in the Value Chain
To understand Telcontar, take a giant step away from GIS.No, a bigger step.Ok, good.Now, have a look at the value chain for consumer mapping technology.Kim Fennell, Telcontar President and CEO, outlined five parts of the chain: content (a.k.a.the "data guys" - NAVTEQ, Tele Atlas, etc.), platform (the software that "processes" the data, where Telcontar fits), application developers (those who make the compelling offerings we consumer want to buy, Motorola's VIAMOTO, for example), channel (the delivery mechanism, a portal like Yahoo or a wireless carrier) and finally the customer (those of us who pay money via our cell phone bills or generate revenue-producing advertising via our eyeballs on portals).

Google Maps Map of Astoria, Oregon

Telcontar sits in that space between the data providers (in fact it often selects and licenses the data from them on behalf of its clients) and the application developers (in the case of Google, Google programmers).The real work Telcontar technology performs inside the various mapping applications is the same: it organizes and retrieves the data; it renders maps; it performs the route calculations and presents directions; it geocodes.Fennell compares Telcontar's role to Oracle's in a real time transactions application: Every one knows that there's an Oracle database underneath, but no one sees it or thinks much about it.

Distinguishing Technology
Now, rendering maps and doing geocoding is not rocket science.Hundreds of companies, including the traditional GIS companies, can do it with their hands tied behind their server's backs.So why did Google select this small company to power some of the most used mapping portals in the world? One word: speed.Telcontar holds 10 patents (and has 21 more applications filed) for technology that speeds up these spatial processes.In particular, Telcontar technology compiles data in to a single compact, efficiently organized proprietary file format (Rich Map Format, RMF) for quick retrieval.NAVTEQ's database for North America in its own format is 40 GB.It's just 4 GB in RMF.Says Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Bill Schwegler, "We can find that needle in a haystack the first time you put your hand in."

Telcontar is the "Intel Inside" of the portal mapping set.And, says Fennell.the question regularly comes up: Why is NAVTEQ or Tele Atlas' name on the map and not Telcontar's? The answer is a legal one: NAVTEQ (and the other data providers) own a copyright on the data which is shown while Tecontar owns patents on its geospatial technology.

Second Generation Internet Mapping
Schwegler is quick to point out that Telcontar is not a GIS company.It focuses on providing a geospatial platform that, once customized, provides fast answers to large numbers of consumer oriented queries. That's not anything like what traditional GIS companies aim to do.As an example, Fennell notes that at a telco you are very likely to find traditional GIS managing infrastructure and helping to figure out where to place new cell towers or telephone poles.But, when it comes to the products offered to consumers for location-based services, an almost completely different set of company names appear.

GIS companies might be considered the "zeroth" generation of online mapping.That is, the goal was to print a map.It might be a map that requires quite a lot of analysis, but it's essentially a paper map product."First generation" online mapping services, Fennell explains, include the MapQuests and MapPoints of the world.Each offers an outsourced service.Companies that don't have the expertise or energy or need to "roll their own" mapping solutions are happy users of such offerings.That's why when you need to find a Marriott or a Starwood hotel, you'll be using MapPoint or MapQuest services, respectively.The mapping is effectively outsourced to Microsoft and AOL Time Warner.

The second generation of online mapping is epitomized by Yahoo, which three years ago determined it unwise to tap into competitor AOL Time Warner's MapQuest for mapping.With technology from Telcontar (and others) it rolled its own solution with its own look and feel, and a quicker response time than the first generation offerings.The two companies are not competitors (Telcontar is not a portal company and Yahoo! is certainly not a mapping company) which makes for better business relations.Moreover, Yahoo and other portals can add on features such as local searches, traffic, advertising, as needed.

The Future and the Past
Fennell and Schwegler are most excited about the success the company is having in the portal arena.They expect to see more, especially as more vertical portals come online for things like travel, automobile navigation, and real estate.But they are also looking down the road at mobile offerings.They have the technology today, they note, to provide directions via mobile phone faster than in-car solutions. Unfortunately, the market is not quite ready for that.

I had to ask one historical question, one that'd be bugging me for a few days.Where did the name of the company come from? Telcontar is the name, in Elfin, of (Aragorn) Strider of Lord of the Rings fame. Schwegler's early work was on a talking map for the blind called Strider.That work, which formed the basis of the current geospatial platform, evolved, and the company created from it was named Telcontar.

Published Sunday, February 20th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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