The Meaning of Google

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.

9 thoughts on “The Meaning of Google”

  1. Are there ads right now? No, but it is still Beta and local search really isn’t integrated yet. You lost me at the Google Mini, but I’ll give you that Google Earth is much different than anything they have done before. Most of us GIS “pros” know Keyhole well from their work before Google, but there isn’t anything here that is really new. There really isn’t much difference between Google Earth and a product such as National Geographic TOPO! other than KML is “open” as opposed to the closed TOPO! system. ESRI doesn’t really care too much about desktop clients as they view the web as their method of distribution, but Google Earth might prove them wrong and even then it doesn’t matter because their real money is in selling server side GIS (which would plug into Google Earth).

    Us GIS pros have had this 3D eye candy for years from ESRI, but it took someone else to bring it to the desktop. Did ESRI miss the boat here? We’ll know in a couple years.

  2. I guess what I’m saying is that Google is an opportunistic company, in the good sense of the word, and while it may resort to ads for the free versions of its products, this does not stop it from offering competitive ad-free premium products, some of which will impinge on ESRI’s space.

    I think Google Earth is the Netscape of the Earth browsers, in that it is the first good one around. It remains to be see if there is an IE equivalent that materializes to give Google Earth competition, but it will need to render KML to be in contention.

  3. Not to mention your Mac version. ;)

    It will be interesting to see if there is ever a Mac version of Google Earth. I can tell you ESRI has no plans to support either the Macintosh or Linux on the desktop (or any of the UNIX flavors they support on server).

  4. Google Earth Business Opportunities

    Lots of people have been speculating on what Google’s business model is by giving away a free version of Google Earth. Stefan Geens at has posted some interesting observations about this today at his site. One of his key…

  5. I think it’s very simple: Google Earth is to geographic data as the web browser is to the web.

    We now have a powerful and fast geographic viewer available for free and already in the hands of millions. Take advantage of it! It’s a wacky world when people question the value of free products.

    As far as advertising… It doesn’t make sense for Google to spam up their interface with ads. People will stop using it. Google gets this, that’s a big reason why they got where they are.

  6. Question the value of free products? Not me, I’m looking forward to using Google Earth to disseminate data from my GIS databases.

    Why did Google buy Keyhole? To move into GIS? I don’t think so. I still feel the purpose of Google Earth is to allow Google Local search into more desktops. Keyhole was developing Earth before Google came along so we can’t really use the product as it stands right now to figure out what their plans are for. We will have to wait for it to finally get out of Beta (and only then can I actually start using it for sharing data with clients) before we can assume there will be no ads in the interface. Believe me, I’m a Google fanatic (Google Desktop, Google Talk, Google Toolbar, Google Earth, Picasa, Hello are all used by me every day), but why do these products exist at all? To keep me looking at Google Ads.

  7. I think Google bought Keyhole to have a platform for location-aware web publishing, into which GIS fits seamlessly on the high end. For Google, it’s “just” another way to explicitly democratize and mine otherwise inaccessible data, though for the average user this amounts to a major shift in how information is accessed on the web, especially local and social information.

    That’s the plan, at least, I think. And they’ve said the Mac version is coming.

  8. You could ask “Why does ArcGIS exist?” and some might answer, “So that ESRI can continue to charge annual ‘maintenance’ fees.”

    Where’s the difference? Nobody is getting anything for free.

  9. Arc GIS v. Google Earth Free


    ArcGIS can be used to perform spatial analysis and advanced spatial analysis. It costs.

    The only analysis Google Earth can do per se is measure distance or altitude. It is free. Of course you can do all the analysis somewhere else and display the final product in GE.

    Google Earth Enterprise ?


    I saw a presentation by Micheal Jones (CTO of GE),during which he demonstrated the timesweep functionality. But this was with the Enterprise version only. What else can the Enterprise version do ? this is an example of temporal analysis what about spatial analysis? someone please tell me, it is in development stage and shrouded in secrecy as far as i can find out. I can be certain of one thing the Enterprise version costs!

    good blog folks! i am trying to resurrect some dialogue here!

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