Google’s recent deprecations ‘not cataclysmic’

February 25, 2015

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Before this month, “deprecate” was not a term that I associated with software or applications. I thought it was an attitude or behavior most often pointed towards one’s self, such as a comedian’s self-deprecating style, but over the last few months, Google has brought “deprecate” into the geospatial technology forefront. In December, they announced the certain and forthcoming demise of the Google Earth API, and one month later, the Google Maps Engine API. Links to Google Earth Enterprise now redirect to the seemingly sturdy and robust Google Maps for Work. Even the future of the flagship desktop Google Earth is uncertain.

Google has a history of moving strategically to trim and focus their efforts, like when they closed Google Labs in 2011 to “put more wood behind fewer arrows,” and they’re known for playing their cards close to their vest and spring-loading their announcements, at least for the public. Yet these announcements were still particularly unexpected.

As the dust settles, the consequences become easier to sort. Geospatial service providers including CartoDB, Mapbox, Esri, and others are wasting no time in wooing potential new customers. Their suppliers are poised to smooth any transition concerns — think, “Operators are standing by.”

This executive decision by Google does whisk away some of the lingering questions about competition and intentions. As Spatial.IQ noted this month, there has long been ambiguity hovering around the overlapping geospatial activities and agendas of Google and Esri. Even in the early days of Google Earth’s popularity, comparisons were often built on perceptions and rumors, as GIS pundit James Fee described. Differentiating between specific products requires understanding technical jargon that is perpetually evolving and beyond the interest of most consumers. Meanwhile, John Q. Mapmaker has been empowered to place his own points on a map and share the map over the Internet, all at no personal financial cost and with relative ease, and as long as that pastime can continue unimpeded, he is likely to remain blissfully unaware of the conflicting corporate missions of his application providers.

These actions by Google have been considered win-win decisions on many levels and for many audiences. Any outcome that will, eventually, help clarify workflow decisions for analysts, IT professionals, web developers and consumers alike should be considered good and welcome. However, while the deprecations will be a trivial inconvenience for many projects and programs, for others in which a specific technology has become central, significant rethinking will be necessary. Imazon’s use of Google Earth Engine to monitor deforestation activity in Brazil is but one example of a project and a workflow that reflects significant investment in infrastructure for critical global problem-solving. Software experts may readily migrate data from one platform to another, but the time spent building relationships among stakeholders is another matter altogether.

How these stories will play out remains to be seen, especially when only some information is known. What choices will federal government agencies make, considering they are presumably the biggest consumers of Google Earth Enterprise? Will our personal desktop and mobile installations of Google Earth wither? Will the horizon be brightest for business and commercial GIS applications, where Esri continues to see very significant growth, and Pitney-Bowes is standing by? Education and training for web developers, the public and future GIS professionals go hand in hand when we think about the as yet unknown answers to these questions.

Google Maps itself is as popular as ever, and without the distractions of other sibling products, stands to benefit as the only child in Google’s geospatial lineup. More developers than ever may turn to it as their one-stop solution, even though geo-enabling content deserves to go way beyond what we usually see produced as simple web map applications. Will developers take note of alternatives and become more thoughtful, innovative and imaginative?

Over the last decade, what Google has done to build up the public understanding and awareness of maps and mapping, particularly through the web, has been priceless for GIS. They made the inaccessible accessible, and produced a common point of reference to be able to communicate about GIS. “It’s a little like Google Earth” may be one of the most effective GIS conversation starters ever. Whatever may happen to that technology in the future, it will have left an indelible cultural impact.

Google’s actions also have generated a great teachable moment for the GIST community. One company’s deprecation decisions should only remind us of how complex and interrelated the overall geospatial industry is. Esri’s David DiBiase recently described it to me as a “diverse ecosystem, filled with a blend of proprietary and non-proprietary, open and closed, software and applications, all combined in particular ways for particular applications.”

In the future, we may have the hindsight to see Google’s decisions as having affected the ecosystem overall, and it may prove to be a significant effect, but it will not be cataclysmic. The most successful professionals and students are comfortable rolling with the punches. They can step back and see the bigger picture of these interactions as having produced an opportunity for more careful, critical and creative choices about applications and workflows.

Be prepared for whatever the dynamic world of GIST will offer next. What you should learn first, stated well by one Mapbox educator recently, is that versatility and spatially-based problem solving are two of the enduring skills that will help us not only survive, but thrive, during these times of change. 


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