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Last Updated: Friday, 1 July 2005, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
Google maps shows the way forward
Getting down and dirty with Google Maps is more fun for geeks than going clubbing - but what if the rules change, asks technology analyst Bill Thompson?

Screengrab of Google Maps page, Google
Google Maps has got a lot of coders excited
There's been a lot of excitement online over the past few months as programmers have explored the Google Maps service.

It isn't the main website that's attracting most interest, although it does look good and offers a serious challenge to established players like Multimap.

Using a range of commands specified in an application program interface, or API, anyone with a modicum of programming ability can add map-based features to their web pages.

So we've seen sites that show recent earthquake activity, a site that plots the locations of the classified ads from Craigslist and helps you decide whether it's worth calling, and even an animated map where invading Mozilla dinosaurs converge on Microsoft's offices outside Seattle.

Web futures

One of the projects on the BBC's Backstage site - where people are encouraged to experiment with BBC data feeds and services - searches news stories for keywords that appear to be place names and makes a map of "where the news is happening".

Although its developer, Ben O'Neill, admits that it doesn't quite work, the principle is great and it is an excellent illustration of the power of this approach to development.

Google isn't the only company giving program access to its database in a clean and well-specified way. Thousands of sites use the Amazon API to get book information, and many open source projects do the same.

These open interfaces are the key to the next stage of the internet's evolution, just as they have been the driving force behind its development to date.

After all, the idea that the network should provide end-to-end connectivity between programs running on separate computers means that any program should be able to open a communications channel - a "socket" in programming terms - to any other program if it knows its network address.

Bill Thompson
Open standards may evolve more slowly but they are reliable and can't be changed simply because the commercial priorities of their owners have shifted.
It doesn't matter whether the program at the other end is a simple terminal emulator or the interface to a massively sophisticated mapping system - once the interface is published it can be used.

The ongoing battle between Microsoft and the European Union over competition also involves interfaces.

As well as being told to unbundle Windows Media Player from the operating system, Microsoft has to give much clearer information about the interfaces to its server software to help companies developing software that will work with them.

Home grown

Of course the main internet interfaces are open, based around freely available published standards that are not under the control of any one company or industry body.

That doesn't apply to Google, Amazon or Microsoft. The Google Maps API is proprietary, entirely owned and controlled by Google.

This means that it can, if it chooses, close off access or keep the faster, cooler and better parts of the interface for its own programmers or partners to use.

It also means it can change the standard at any time, either adding new features or taking old ones away.

This is something programmers are used to. In the latest release of the Mac OS operating system Apple has made some major changes to the underlying programming model which have forced developers of Apple software to change their code.

And when Apple moves from the PowerPC to Intel chips there will inevitably be other changes.

But while we have got used to it, it can make life difficult. Open standards may evolve more slowly but they are reliable and can't be changed simply because the commercial priorities of their owners have shifted.

The danger with Google Maps is that third parties may end up building rich, complex information services on the back of what is, at its core, a marketing ploy by a very large public corporation.

So if times get hard, or Google gets swallowed up by another company, in the way that Malcolm Glazer has taken over Manchester United, all bets will be off.

Dartford marshes 1801 - the first map produced by Ordnance Survey
Ordnance Survey has mapped the UK for centuries
That doesn't mean we shouldn't use the mapping API to have fun and do cool stuff.

It just means that with maps, as with other major elements of the information infrastructure, we should be looking for better guarantees than a corporate promise to "do no evil".

Here in the UK the Ordnance Survey, (OS), has mapped the country on our behalf.

I'd like to see an OS maps API to rival Google, one backed by a guarantee from the government that the service will remain freely available, that the API will be published as an open standard and so not subject to arbitrary change, and that it will be made available to all.

This is unlikely to happen because the OS is what's called a Trading Fund, a government-owned company required to cover its own costs, so even though we have paid for the mapping, we, the citizens, can't use the data freely.

But perhaps seeing the innovative work that is already being done with Google Maps will persuade the government that relaxing this requirement would generate major economic benefits.

Instead of thinking about making a few thousand pounds here and there from licensing, they could add millions to the economy by providing real-time traffic congestion information to commuters on an open platform with an open API.

It's just a thought.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


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