Google Earth Escapes the Client and Comes to the Browser

GE in browser

Google’s 3D data has escaped the client and is now a welcome addition to the browser! Today at Google I/O a Google Earth Browser plugin is going to be released. With the plugin installed anybody with a Windows machine will be able to view Google Earth mashups in the comfort of their own browser instead of having to pull up a separate client.

This release does not change Google Maps, the mapping site on Google’s domain; it will not be serving up Google Earth imagery (yet). This release does not change all Google maps mashups into Google Earth Mashups. Instead the plugin enables developers to offer Google Earth imagery to their users very easily. I think it is notable that this is being offered to developers first. Why developers first? For one the plugin is being released at Google I/O, Google’s developer conference. I think that we should expect many developer-only treats today and tomorrow. Second, mashups can really help with distribution and help gain mindshare with those who don’t make it to Google’s sites on their own.

As Paul Rademacher, the creator of the first mashup ( and the technical lead on the project, pointed out to me during a call last week “The goal, apart from opening up Google Earth, is to bring Earth to the user. You can’t help but see Google maps when you surf now you’ll also see Google Earth.” The final reason, I am sure, is to keep Google’s main mapping site clean. Google Maps has had a lot of features added lately; they will need to spend some time figuring out a 3D UX.

Here are some sample apps for you to try out. You will be prompted to download the plugin:

On the call Paul and Google Earth Product Manager Peter Birch pointed out some of the technical features of the plugin. The Firefox and IE plugins enable a Javascript API, very similar to the existing Google Maps API, that enables the imagery, camera titling, new controls, and 3D models (importable from Sketchup and websites). Developers will be able to use KML to instruct the API. Mouse events are available for all features and the default behavior can be overridden. Google’s Sky imagery is also available and can be accessed programatically. Developers can create an events window for their application that renders 100% full HTML for the browser you are in.

The plugin enables the latest Google Earth features (release 4.3) including “Photo-realistic buildings from cities around the world”, “Dawn to dusk views with the Sunlight feature”, ” and “Swoop navigation from outer space to street-level” (this was incredibly smooth when I tried it). Developers will be able to toggle the buildings on and off (the screenshot above has them on – wow, they rival VE’s latest work, Radar post).

Using the plugin was very cool and fun. I have always enjoyed swooping around the world. I almost never fire up Google Earth unless I m specifically researching something for it. I think that I will use the client even less, but will use the Google Earth data even more. They have a packed an amazing amount of functionality into a browser plugin.

The “battle” between Google and Microsoft is closest at the mapping front. Both are spending amazing amounts of money collecting imagery and data (Radar post). Up till now Google had ceded the 3D space in the browser to Microsoft. This is a strong shot across the 3D bow. Both Virtual Earth and the GE Plugin are Windows only — right now. Mac support is coming from Google (I didn’t ask about Linux, but I can’t imagine that Google would exclude the developer-centric platform). Virtual Earth on the other hand was implemented with a C# plugin and has never said that they will release a version that supports Macs. As a mashup developer which 3D platform would you choose? I’ll bet for most it will be the one that supports all comers. I hope the GE Plugin helps push the VE team towards supporting the Mac.

Paul Rademacher, the technical lead, will be giving a session on the Google Earth Plugin today at 3PM2PM. The session is currently entitled Map Mashups Session — are there any other coyly titled sessions? Good chance there are releases associated with them. I’ll be at Moscone Center today and tomorrow. If you’re at Google I/O, say hi.

Update: Paul has posted on the Google Lat-Long blog. Frank Taylor has two posts over on the Google Earth Blog.

mtn ge

Screenshot from the Milk Truck game. The truck is out of view on the side of Mt Everest.

GE maps with controls

Screenshot from the Maps API sample app; look at those controls; they are very well-done.

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