Everybody is trying to figure out what it all means regarding Google, and depending on your focus, you get different answers. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber goes the Noam Chomsky route, where newspapers don’t sell news to readers but sell readers to advertisers, ditto Google with search, and Spatially Adjusted buys that argument:
For all those thinking Google Earth is the next GIS platform, think again. Google only views it as a way to push ads on to your desktop.
But I think that is landing a little too harshly on one side of the debate about what Google means. I think there is more room for nuance, certainly when it comes to Google Earth.
First, Google does have businesses that are not advertising-driven, though these are ignored by John Gruber: There is the Google Mini, a classic case of selling the shovel so others can do their own (data) mining. And there is Google Earth Pro and Google Earth Enterprise, whose price tags I am sure preclude advertising.
Software such as Google Earth benefits from both the network effect (the more users of KML, the more useful KML is) and economies of scale (Google Earth costs nothing to copy, servers and bandwidth are relatively cheap). From this perspective, it makes sense to fight for viewer market share by releasing a free version.
This does not imply an advertising-driven strategy, however — it’s above all an upselling strategy, first to $20 for the Plus version of software that’s already installed on the desktop (I’ll bite as soon as the Mac version is out), then up to the more expensive versions of software that all the real estate agents have come to know and love. Let’s not underestimate the power of eye candy.
Nor let us forget that there is currently not an ad to be found in Google Earth. If future versions have ads, but then let you drop them in the Plus version, Google will be following Opera in their business model. Here the ads defray costs while providing consumer choice — and that’s not an advertising pure-play, just as is the case with Opera.
So I think James Fee is wrong about Google viewing Google Earth as just a way to push ads onto the desktop (and time will tell:-). But is he right when he implies that Google is not serious about being a GIS platform?
I don’t think Google Earth currently presents a threat to ESRI’s dominance at the enterprise level, but I do think Google is working on it (given what I believe to be their business strategy, above), and part of their competitive edge lies in having a more compelling free browser, which incidentally won the market share war on day 1 of its release.
In this sense Google Earth already is a developer platform, in the same way that modern web browsers are a developer platform — a set of broadly adopted standards with which developers gladly align themselves for fun and profit. That’s what’s been happening in droves, not just among the hackers but among GIS pros, who are busy working on converters and adapters to accommodate KML, so that the masses can view their work in the only KML browser currently around, Google Earth.