Making Sense Out of Google’s Geospatial Evolution
Directions Magazine Exclusive
When Google announced in December that it would withdraw support for its Google Earth browser plug-in in one year’s time, then in January stated that Google Maps Engine API would follow into the company‘s archives, and subsequently in February communicated that there would be key changes to the Google Earth Enterprise product sales and support model, there was understandably a ripple effect in the geospatial industry as various GIS companies looked at how to address a future opportunity.
Companies put out announcements, touted alternative options, and there were various levels of marketing hype that flooded the GIS space as these organizations worked feverishly to convince customers that their solution was the best alternative. Customers responding to the onslaught of announcements from these organizations were curious about what exactly the future would hold, what was real and what had substance. Navigating the sea of options while understanding the reality that Google will fit in geospatial mapping for the long term, especially in the internet connected world, is top of mind for many of our current customers.
What are our options? What can we do? Where do we go next? I’ve been busy engaging with dozens of customers to relay the facts over the last few months, as many critical topics related to the Google Geo product changes are not available for broad distribution, but instead only authorized for delivery directly to existing customers.
So what next? To understand the answer to this question we need to take a moment and reflect on the past history that brought us to this point.
To some extent, the industry and customers have had a simple choice over the past decade, since Google acquired Keyhole Inc., obtaining Earth Viewer, which evolved into the Google Earth application that introduced literally over a billion people to the concept of geospatial data visualization in 3-D. Google Maps and Google Maps for Mobile added to that experience, as did Google Earth Enterprise and Google Maps Engine for enterprise customers.
These products combined geospatial data processing to create content, then packaged it in an easily consumable format that could be accessed by everything from a web-browser on any virtually any computing device, to private data sets accessible offline on desktops, laptops, mobile devices, or customer’s offline or private networks - all offering a rich and familiar Google visualization experience. This enabled geo-literacy to be introduced to non-geographic information system professionals who came to rely on understanding data spatially, using Google Earth and Google Maps for obtaining answers to questions that they had formerly not known how to ask.
A few organizations took aim at Google, building products to perform similar tasks but not in similar ways. Having been a Google geo partner for seven years, it has provided me with a unique perspective on the various options on the table and the changes occurring. What I’ve observed is that no product on the market has one-for-one technology comparable to Google’s at present, and that includes companies that are trying to stampede customers into knee jerk reactions for replacement capabilities.
The reason I believe there remains a capability gap with Google’s transition in the enterprise GIS space is that, since nearly everyone is a private consumer of Google Maps and Earth, enterprise customers have become accustomed to expecting easy, simple, and clean ways of understanding their raster, vector and terrain data and largely accomplished this in near identical fashion with Google's Earth Enterprise and Maps Engine product.
“Simple, easy, and clean” are adjectives that can’t be used for most of the products available today from companies trying to lure GIS data consumers into buying technology better operated by GIS professionals than by decision-makers and non-GIS users — or more simply stated, the 99 percent of the rest of the world. Google, without question, has the most familiar mapping interface to the average everyday user and that is a compelling point likely to be one of the headlines over the next decade in geospatial.
What we know for a fact is that Google remains very focused on spatial and mapping offerings. The current public Google Map interface (maps.google.com) announced an update at Google I/O of 2012 that includes support for WebGL 3-D in the map itself without requiring the Google Earth plug-in. Google also recently began selling very high-resolution imagery content and announced last year their acquisition of satellite imaging company SkyBox. The 2015 Google IO event has a session labeled “The Earth in real time” (https://events.google.com/io2015/schedule#day1/f858a197-b6d4-e411-b87f-00155d5066d7), which is a peek at just how vested Google is in a whole new world of mapping and spatial capabilities.
Additionally, the Google.org project Earth Engine (google.org/earthengine) led by the seasoned and visionary Google Product Manager, Rebecca Moore, is changing the game for performing vastly powerful remote sensing analytics on a scale previously unimaginable for everything from land use, climate change, deforestation, among numerous other uses - using Google's unparalleled ability to provide data processing and storage at scale. Imagine throwing incredibly current and revisited content into that equation!
While it is presently unclear what Google’s go-to-market strategy is for these investments, it is likely we’ll all be benefitting as consumers and internet connected enterprise users from these technologies for years to come. However, for those on private disconnected networks, or without the ability to maintain connections to the internet, it was announced that tools like Earth Enterprise will only be supported through 2017 and that Google Maps Engine will be going away even sooner.
So how does one adapt as an enterprise consumer of GIS, spatial visualization, and mapping tools? The message I’ve been communicating to customers is to first assess their current needs – both now, and more importantly, in the future; then begin conducting analysis of capabilities that come to market that can fill those needs and plan for tomorrow. After nearly a decade of using Google technology, the replacement answer for now might be a suite of multiple products to provide all aspects of processing, analysis and presentation. While one product might provide all of a customer’s needs, it’s likely that more than one will be required depending on what those needs are going forward.
My one sincere hope is that customers in the industry and in geospatial data consumer organizations don’t jump too soon, but instead watch what happens with the market and what capabilities vendors and technology companies will make available in the next 12 months to two years. Google has committed to ensuring all existing users have a variety of oftentimes extremely cost-compelling options to ensure the changes have minimal impact while they evaluate the new capabilities offered by other players in the market and I firmly advise customer’s to take advantage of this.
I specifically endorse this approach because I believe that here presently exists an opportunity for the next chapter of offline geospatial to be written over these next two years. While Google commands both a dominant customer base and a roadmap for online, there will be use cases for offline and disconnected environments that need to be met.
I believe this market to be fertile because Google did not substantially enhance the enterprise offering over the time it was being produced. Frankly, despite numerous feature requests from folks on the GIS side of the house, Google didn’t have to meet these asks, because it quickly became the de facto standard for an industry of lay users and few competitors saw a business model to compete with that.
Now that the 800-pound gorilla has left the room, potential replacements are beneficiaries of a suddenly changed market climate that should foster investment and innovation, along with the spur of competition that will make better products, including those that will likely address many of the gaps that existed in Google’s offerings.
Content and connected services is key for Google, as it concentrates on its roots and provides the next generation web mapping APIs to excite developers and consumers. It has spent about a half billion dollars recently in buying Skybox and Titan Aerospace to keep that content flowing - such as better and more frequent imagery of new buildings, new intersections and ground data – the stuff that spawned Google Maps, Earth, Streetview, Places and its yet unknown future descendants.
The question then is, can the customer find the best way to use that content with the rest of its geospatial data? And can the geospatial industry take what Google has willed it — a huge increase in understanding the value of spatial information within our organizational users — and make it even better?
The answer to both has to be yes.
Think about it. A decade ago, presentations were bar graphs, charts and Excel spreadsheets that prompted more questions than answers. Now you expect a map in 2-D or 3-D that charts the performance level of a territory or a trend in enemy operations in a sector. It’s presented in a way that engages users, helps them understand quickly and, in many cases, encourages them to ask for more.
The truth is that Google created consumers who understand geospatial and know its value. They are the beneficiaries of a spatial education that Google helped underwrite. The geospatial industry can’t afford to take a step back, so it has to take a brief timeout to see what it can do to take a step ahead.
The geospatial space is as exciting as ever. I anticipate activity both from Google and from other industry players over the next 12-24 months that will inform decisions tied to your long-term geo roadmap. Find the facts, evaluate the options and benefit from this evolution.