Google Maps: Building a product for the world from Australia
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The story of Google Maps207 provides an insight into a global product designed here in Australia that has literally changed how we view the world. Google Maps demonstrates not only how the internet can shrink distances and allow Australia to be a technology development hub, but also how incorporating the work of hackers into your business plan can take a product to the next level.
Google Maps is a Web-based mapping service application that is provided by Google.
Back in 2003, when the idea for Google Maps was first germinating, maps on the internet were generally used to provide driving directions to consumers. On the business side, if they were used at all, they were merely a piece of information to complement store location information.
The idea behind Google Maps was that, if you made the map big enough, the map could become the platform around which other information could be organised. Similar to the way that the Web is a platform that different individuals and businesses upload information for others to find, a mapping platform can organise different types of information around a location. For example, if a map showed you the location of the closest theatre that was showing the movie you wanted to see, it could also include information about a pizza place nearby where you could dine with friends before the movie.
The idea has worked. Millions of people use Google Maps every day and around 150 000 third party websites integrate Google Maps.
The Google Maps team identifies three reasons why the product has become so popular:
- Useability—Google Maps made it easy for people to use the map without needing to be a map expert. The map is draggable–if it doesn't quite give you the information you need at first or if you want to see more, you can manipulate the map to get the information you need. The design of the map is also user friendly.
- Satellite and other linked—in imager- the inclusion of satellite and terrain imagery has been a major drawcard. People start exploring out of curiosity and then stay to use the map. Linking in other imagery such as Street View and user-generated images has also added value for users because it provides another layer through which to engage with the map.
- Handheld devices—the improvements in the screen displays and useability of handheld devices have also contributed to Google Maps' popularity. People tend to need a map more when they are on the go. In response to the growing usage on handheld devices, Google Maps quickly built a mobile version and released it in 2006. It became a highly popular downloadable mobile app.
From its initial launch in February 2005, Google Maps attracted a lot of interest from developers. The internal development team had planned that future versions of the product would allow other people to put their services into the map (for example, the pizza shop and the movie theatre) so the technology was structured to allow third parties to incorporate non-map data from the outset.
However, hackers took it to a new level much sooner than the team anticipated. The hackers reverse engineered the original map, put it on a new map and then published a blog post explaining how it had been done, in more detail than the Google Maps team could have done. They then ripped the map, put it on their own webpage and put their own marker on it.
One month later a developer by the name of Paul Rademacher used the instructions on the blog to take Google Maps and combine it with rental listings from a popular online classifieds site, Craigslist. The combination of mapping information and rental listings became www.housingmaps.com. Housingmaps.com let people looking for houses to rent or buy in the US and Canada via the simple interface of Google Maps and review listings based on location, price, surrounding amenities (like public transport) and, often, photographs. The mashup earned Rademacher a nomination as one of the top innovators under 35 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's magazine Technology Review.
Housingmaps.com and a series of other mashups attracted considerable media interest. Although the media focus was on the mashups, it was excellent publicity and boosted Google Maps in the popular consciousness.
The one issue was that the map data was licensed to Google under terms that did not permit this type of innovative mashup use. But the mashups captured the public's imagination about the many uses to which online maps could be put. Consequently, Google decided to make the mashups legitimate and reserve the right to develop the concept into a business model. They developed an application programming instruction (API), which allows developers to integrate Google Maps into their websites with their own data points, and negotiated a new license agreement to authorise this use. The new API was launched in June 2006.
An initial team of four people—Lars Rasmussen, Jens Rasmussen, Stephen Ma and Noel Gordon—combined their business and engineering skills to develop the first prototypes for Google Maps here in Australia.
Brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen were laid off from the companies they were working for in Silicon Valley, California, during the "tech wreck" of 2002. Jens had to leave California because his work visa expired and Lars moved to Sydney because his then girlfriend (now wife) was Cuban and could not live in the United States.
Jens had the initial idea of Google Maps, and quickly convinced Lars of its merit. Through their work in Sydney, they teamed up with Stephen Ma and Noel Gordon. Together, Jens, Lars, Stephen and Noel built a prototype. Lars then returned to California in an effort to secure venture capital interest but was unsuccessful. Ultimately, the team had the opportunity to pitch the idea to Google, who agreed to buy their company and technology in 2004.
Once the deal was done, the initial development team broached the idea of doing their work from Australia. They offered to set up a Sydney office for Google. Google management was open to the idea but only if the team could prove they could be productive.
To some people in Silicon Valley and the rest of the world, it must have seemed hard to believe that Australians could be productive workers given the quality of life they enjoy. It is almost as though the tourism industry has been too successful at selling Australia as a greater leisure destination. Jens, Lars and team had little trouble demonstrating to Google management just how hard Australians could and do work. They also gathered around them a team of world-class Australian-educated engineers, as well as a number of foreigners attracted to the lifestyle of Australia and the cutting-edge work being done in the office here.
The Google Maps team is now larger than just the original team and based in Google's Silicon Valley headquarters but a strong contingent of Google Maps engineers continue to work on the product in Sydney.
According to Lars Rasmussen, Google Maps demonstrates that:
"The Web means that it doesn't matter where you are. If you need investment, find it here or overseas. But you can live here in Australia and build products for the world thanks to the internet."Back to top
 Reuse or distribution of this case study must include the following attribution: Australia's Digital Economy: Future Directions © Google Inc. and Commonwealth of Australia, 2009, www.dbcde.gov.au/digital_economy/final_report