Google isn’t a search company, it’s a maps company

And now more essential than ever.


We all think of Google as a search engine, but over the past few years the company has been transitioning into something far bigger and more important. Search is now merely the plumbing for what Google really is: a maps company. Or, more specifically, a location company.

The transition is a smart one. The world is barreling headlong into a ubiquitous computing reality, where everything around us—from the walls of the buildings we live and work in to the vehicles we drive to the clothes we wear—is being connected and informed by data. In this reality, the desktop computer—the device that used to hold a monopoly on computing—is looking more and more like an antiquated relic. It won’t be long before that traditional computer is responsible for only a minority of the computing we do. For many people, it already is.

Google started as something that resided on that desktop, a tool to organize the data being created by the computing happening on the ephemeral Internet. But with that computing power and data increasingly getting up off computers and melting into the real world, it makes all kinds of sense for the company to follow along. Ultimately, the same thing will happen—using Google on a computer will account for only a small part of how we interact with the company overall.

Google’s transformation started in earnest in 2004 with two acquisitions. The first was Australia’s Where 2 Technologies, started by Danish brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen, who had created a downloadable mapping program. The bigger deal, however, was for Silicon Valley start-up Keyhole. Named for the U.S. spy satellites, Keyhole’s main product was its Earth Viewer 3D software, which used satellite imagery bought from the U.S. government’s Landsat program and other commercial sources to create three-dimensional maps of the world. Keyhole was initially funded by Sony in 2001 and then backed by In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm started in 1999 by the CIA to provide the intelligence agency with state-of-the-art spy technology.

The company was headed by John Hanke, who prior to receiving his MBA from Berkeley in 1996 worked in a nondescript “foreign affairs” capacity for the American government in Washington and Indonesia. When I asked Hanke a few years back what he did in foreign affairs, he wasn’t exactly forthcoming. “Pretty much that. That’s really the extent of what I’ve said publicly, so let’s leave it at that,” he told me with a grin.

Keyhole’s main customers when it was acquired were the U.S. Army’s Communications Electronic Command and the Department of Defense. Its software was renamed and relaunched in 2005 as Google Earth, which wowed users with its lightning-fast rendering of satellite imagery. The pictures, benefiting from new super-fast computer processors, rapid Internet speeds and better image compression, loaded so quickly that they looked like full-motion video. Google Maps, a less-powerful, more static version of Earth, launched the same year.

Google expanded the military-originated software to include Hubble Space Telescope photos of the moon, the constellations and Mars in 2007, and the ocean floor in 2009. The company’s Internet competitors, including Microsoft, Yahoo and Mapquest (remember Mapquest?), were all forced to follow suit with their own three-dimensional mapping software, which has since created a boom in commercial satellite photography.

After the initial launch in 2005, Google began adding features and upgrades at an almost feverish pace: real-time traffic, navigation, 3D models of buildings, incorporation of Picasa photos, public transit information, hybrid map-satellite views, walking and biking directions, Street View and so on. The big move into mobile—and therefore the real world—came in 2007 with the second iteration of software that could work with or without a GPS, instead using cellphone networks and Wi-Fi hotspots to determine location. With the iPhone’s launching of the smartphone revolution the same year and Google following suite with the first Android device in 2008, the rest is—as they say—pretty much history.

Virtually everything the company has done since (that the public knows about) has been tied to that singular purpose of driving the real world’s data through wireless connectivity: Google Glass, acquisitions of travel outfit Frommer and restaurant rating service Zagat, building networks in emerging markets, robot cars, even Google Now and its context-sensitive advice. It’s all geared toward making life easier for both out-and-about smartphone users and the advertisers the company makes its money from, and ultimately connecting the two.

At its annual I/O conference a few weeks ago, Google unveiled a big revamp to Maps. I’ve been playing with the new version for the past few days and the additions are uniformly nice. The search field is now directly on the map and it remembers and learns from your use of other Google services. Results are also specified on the maps themselves, rather than in a left-hand column. The new feature I like best is how clicking anywhere on the map displays the exact address for that particular point. That sort of thing will come in handy for when you need to approximate directions. The other additions are also great from a business perspective, in that they will help advertisers become more relevant to consumers at the times when they are generally most needed—as in, when potential customers are nearby, or looking for the particular business.

The new Maps, which is set to roll out to all users this summer, also incorporates some of the real-time 3D capabilities of Google Earth, although I wasn’t able to get this function to work. Google says you need the latest operating system running on your computer, plus the latest web browser (Internet Explorer need not apply), as well as a good video card on your machine. My computer is only about two years old, but it still couldn’t handle the 3D views despite having up-to-date software. This might be a bug, or it simply may just be a feature that truly requires high-end hardware to work properly.

Google is also promising a revamped mobile Maps experience on both phones and tablets this summer. The mobile version will incorporate an “incidents experience” that will warn drivers of road problems before they get stuck in traffic jams.

All of this together will only add to the company’s already-considerable lead in location-aware services. The advantage over competitors doesn’t just come from the huge amount of time, effort and money Google has devoted so far, and how much it obviously shows, it’s also in the fundamental attitude the company has towards computing and connectivity in real space. Other competitors including Microsoft, Apple and BlackBerry are all racing to beef up their mobile map apps, but none seem to have baked the idea of ubiquitous computing as far into their DNA. For them, maps are either a nice-to-have or even a have-to-have; for Google, it’s a basic philosophy. It’s tough to see anyone catching up.

When it comes to mobile phones, maps and location-abilities are proving to be the killer apps. There was outrage when Apple briefly sacked Google Maps from the iPhone back in 2012, prompting many users—including myself—to consider switching to Android. Apple’s version was widely panned (and since significantly improved) and the entire episode served as a big wake-up call to many smartphone users about just how important maps were.

Anecdotally, I was decently impressed with the newest BlackBerry Q10 and briefly considered switching before deciding against it because of the phone’s poor camera and—especially—because of its lack of official Google Maps. Now, if Google were to release a Maps app for BlackBerry… well, that would prompt another mental conversation. For me, at least, much of the competitive situation hinges on location, location, location.

All told, Google’s evolution over the next few years will likely prove to be quite funny. The further the company delves into the real world, the more simplistic the old reality of its original mission—the organizing of web pages—will appear. There will soon come a day, if it’s not here already, when we’ll think it was quaint that Google was once just a minimalistic search bar.