Eight years ago, Google bought a cool little graphics business called Keyhole that had been working on 3D maps. It turned out to be a very smart move.
Along with the acquisition came Brian McClendon, a tall and serious Kansan, who had supplied high-end graphics software used in films including Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.
Today, McClendon is Google’s Mr Maps — presiding over one of the fastest growing areas in the search giant’s business; one that has recently left rival Apple embarrassed and threatens to make Google the most powerful company in mapping the word has ever seen.
Google is throwing considerable resources into building what is arguably the most comprehensive map ever made.
“It’s all part of Google’s self-avowed mission to organise all the world’s information,” McClendon said. “You need to have the basic structure of the world so you can place the relevant information on top of it. If you don’t have an accurate map, everything else is inaccurate,” he says.
It is a message that will make Apple cringe. The company triggered outrage when it pulled Google Maps off the latest version of its iPhone software for its own bug-riddled and often wildly inaccurate map system.
“We screwed up,” Apple boss Tim Cook said last week.
McClendon won’t comment on when and if Apple will put Google’s application back on the iPhone. Talks are ongoing and he is at pains to point out what a “great” product the iPhone is. It will be a huge climbdown if they have to reuse Google. In the meantime, what McClendon really cares about is building a better map.
This is not the first time Google has made a landgrab in the real world, as the publishing industry will attest. Its ambitions in maps could be bigger, more far reaching and more controversial. For a company developing driverless cars — the governor of California signed a law last month to allow driverless cars on the state’s roads from 2015 — and wearable computers in the form of glasses. Maps are a serious business. There is no doubting McClendon’s vision. His car licence plate reads: ITLLHPN.
Until the 1980s maps were still largely a pen and ink affair, then mainframe computers allowed the development of geographic information system software (GIS) able to display and organise geographic information in whole new ways.
By 2005, when Google launched Google Maps, computing power allowed the software to go mainstream. Maps were about to change the way we find a bar, a parcel or even a story — Washington’s homicidewatch.org, uses Google Maps to track fatal attacks across the city. Now the rise of mobile devices has pushed mapping into everyone’s hands and to the forefront in the battle of the tech giants.
About 20 percent of Google’s queries are now “location specific.” The company doesn’t give an exact number, but on mobile the percentage is “even higher,” McClendon said.
Google’s approach to better maps is about layers. It started with an aerial view and added Street View in 2007. Its ground level photographic map, snapped from its own fleet of specially designed cars, now covers 8 million kilometers of roads. Google is not stopping there. The company has put cameras on bikes to cover remote trails, and you can tour the Great Barrier Reef thanks to diving mappers. Luc Vincent, the Google engineer known as “Mr Street View,” carried a 18kg pack of snapping cameras down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and then back up along another trail as fellow hikers excitedly shouted “Google, Google” at the man with the space-age backpack.