I don’t often comment on disappointing news articles, but I couldn’t pass on this one. The premise of the article is that Microsoft invented Google Earth in 1998 and then blew it by not exploiting their invention.
Sounds easy to believe, but it’s nonsense. And a small amount of fact-checking would have saved us from it. Most importantly:
- TerraServer is not the same as Google Earth, unless you’re just talking about the “idea of viewing aerial imagery on a computer in some form.” However, that idea existed well before TerraServer in the form of applications, vs. TS being free in web browsers for the first time.
- Microsoft didn’t abandon maps. It launched a competitor to Google Earth called Virtual Earth and invested heavily in sourcing aerial imagery. It also maintains (to this day!) Bing Maps as a viable, if less popular, competitor to Google Maps.
- FWIW, post TerraServer, MS invented the car-mounted cameras that NavTek drove around our streets for MS and Google, before Google unleashed their own StreetView cars to remove that dependency. MS invented orthorectified ‘birds-eye’ imagery, 45 degree views, to show the top and sides of buildings. I could list a dozen other MS innovations in this space that were productized and even successful in their time. It’s only last year (or so) that Microsoft cratered its internally-sourced mapping efforts, selling some assets and people to Uber.
Let’s break it down with some easily discovered information:
- TerraServer, released in 1998, was most interesting for hosting an unprecedented 1TB satellite imagery database publicly on the internet for free, withstanding thousands of simultaneous users (millions daily). That deserves ample credit as a feat of engineering alone.
- The user-experience for TS, however, was crude. Jumping from one whole tile to the next was not an adequate end-user experience. In other words, it was never an actual product, just a tech demo. The eventual productization of that demo came in Virtual Earth and Bing Maps (though the Bing brand came later).
- Where2 improved on the basic map-web-interface significantly in 2004 by allowing smooth scrolling of image tiles, later smooth zooming, while mixing roads and labels. That became Google Maps, which was actually useful and not just interesting.
- It’s reasonable to say that Google Maps was an improvement on TerraServer’s UI with the same basic concept. Of course, in that vein we could say that Bing Maps was even closer improvement on TerraServer. But that undermines the whole premise of the article, since Bing Maps still exists…
- We can trace some of the actual lineage of Google Earth separately back to work at SGI around 1996, called “Space to Face” — a virtual zoom in from 100 miles up down to a single spot on the ground. This demo inspired Chris Tanner (et al) to invent a cheaper way to render the right portion of a planet-sized image in real-time without the expensive custom hardware. That was the first key innovation of Google Earth, coming around 1997/98.
- The only similarity between the way GE handles imagery and TS is the idea of chopping a multi-terrabyte virtual image up into multi-resolution tiles. This is such a basic idea that it’s not even patentable (another company already lost on that claim). To be viable delivering real-time imagery, Keyhole had to innovate significantly in terms of how it batches tiles for efficient network transport. And unlike TS and VE, the rendering in GE is not actually done in tiles.
- The most important difference is in the user experience. TerraServer is a simple 2D click-through sequential aerial image-browser. Google Earth is a seamless virtual planet rendered in real-time 3D, letting you fly anywhere and see any view. It renders 3D roads and labels in real-time, optimizing for the user’s view. It lets you literally change your perspective, from way out in space down to standing on the ground. It’s basically AR/VR (without the HMD) while TS is basically zoomable maps.
- Google Earth was re-branded around 2005. Keyhole existed from 1999 on, and the code from even earlier. It’s hard to claim MS invented Google Earth as TerraServer when this was fairly contemporaneous at best.
- And, as stated before, the premise that MS abandoned maps is just plain wrong. There are plenty of things we can fault MS for doing or not doing. But let’s not make stuff up. 🙂
- There’s a much more interesting story in the relationship of maps to the future of Augmented Reality for Microsoft and others. But let’s leave that for another day.