Google Maps and innovation

Google Maps and innovation

Summary: Innovation is incremental, and nobody demonstrates that better than Google.

TOPICS: Google

Today, I want to talk about some Google innovations, a topic which ties nicely to some of the themes I discussed last week. Hopefully, this won't cause high-level Microsoft executives to "pull a Hitchcock" and fly down to Los Angeles to tie crows to my arms and legs (Alfred Hitchcock tied seagulls to Tippi Hedren's dress in his film "The Birds" to achieve more realistic bird attack scenes). As Microsoft's first employee noted, however, good ideas are good ideas, and Google Maps has a bunch of good ideas.

Google is an extremely good example of the "incremental" nature of invention. Lightning has struck the Mountain View company twice (and I mean lightning in the figurative sense, not that Google employees are particularly prone to getting electrocuted), first with Search, and now, with Google Maps.

Google maps enters a pretty crowded market. Prior to Google Maps, I used Mapquest for all my mapping needs. Google maps made small improvements to the online mapping concept, however, that made me stand up and take notice.

The first thing that made me try the product is probably Google maps most useless feature - its integrated satellite view. Okay, maybe I'm not one of those guys who scans aerial maps for signs of alien presence, but I used the ability to toggle between standard map mode and satellite map mode about twice. It got old after the second time.

That doesn't mean satellite view isn't useful. I tried Google Maps because I heard of satellite view. It's a completely useless feature (at least for me), but it's one hell of a hook to get people to try out the service. That makes it very useful, indeed, at least for Google.

The second thing I noticed was draggable maps, which is the ability to grab a map with your mouse and drag it in any direction to view adjoining areas. That hooked me. Los Angeles is a MASSIVE city. It has several key arteries, however, that most people use to orient themselves, like highways 405 and 101, or roads like Sunset Boulevard. Search results, however, often return a tangle of roads that doesn't include any of the standard reference points.

The reference, however, may exist just off to the side of the displayed area. On Mapquest, I'd have to page over to the neighboring map cell. With Google Maps, I just drag, or as I discovered just yesterday (by accident), hit the arrow keys. That's very cool, and is a small innovation that makes the map 100 times more useful. It makes competing maps seem downright antediluvian.

The other features that cemented my newfound choice of favorite online map tool was clearer maps, and better directions. By clearer maps, I mean maps that make roads look like fat little sausages and displays easy-to-read road names and has well-defined lines. Again, this is a very minor innovation that makes a huge difference in usability.

Better directions are the other improvement. Anyone who has used an online map has received directions that propose the equivalent of crossing Los Angeles by way of Des Moines, Iowa. I've never received bad directions from Google maps...yet. That doesn't mean it won't ever happen, but for now, I'm pretty impressed with whatever mapping algorithms they are using under the covers.

Now, consider what Google has done. None of the improvements I've mentioned are "grand inventions." Google didn't invent HTML, or JavaScript, or was the first to use advanced scripting concepts to build highly-interactive, AJAX-style web applications (some claim Microsoft did that, though the claim will probably meet with the typical deconstruction which inevitably follows to prove that Microsoft never invents anything). Google wasn't the first with an online mapping tool, nor was it the first with a search engine.

Google just made small improvements that, in the aggregate, made enough of a difference to interest people. That, in essence, demonstrates the nature of invention. "Big" inventions are those that have a big effect on people. That's a subjective standard which means that the byproduct of billions in R&D might be considered less "inventive" than something hacked together in a burst of inspiration by a smart hacker.

The billion-dollar invention and the burst of inspiration are both incremental, however. Invention never creates something completely new, given the reliance of any invention on what went before. It just makes something that exists a bit better than before.  That's certainly the case with Google Maps.

Topic: Google

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • MS was first with AJAX

    "Google didn't invent HTML, or Javascript, or was the first to use advanced scripting concepts to build highly-interactive, AJAX-style web applications (some claim Microsoft did that, though the claim will probably meet with the typical deconstruction which inevitably follows to prove that Microsoft never invents anything)."

    Indeed, Microsoft was the first to use what is now called AJAX: Outlook Web Access (OWA). The OWA team created the XMLHttpRequest object, on which Google Maps and today's AJAX apps are built.
  • The satellite images mean a lot in some lines of work

    It may not be useful when trying to find directions to the local DMV, but those satellite images are great when looking up information about a park, farm, or any large area where the topography and landmarks (trees, creeks, buildings) make a difference in what you are doing. I would think many contractors will take advantage of that, not to mention people interested in nature.
    Michael Kelly
  • Google Maps.

    While I agree that Google has done a great many good things to improve online mapping and directions and the like. I would not consider Google Maps an invention because of its refinements. Rather, as the title of your article suggests, it is an innovation. Actually a number of innovations together.

    Google Map also opens the way for a lot of innovative use because of their open APIs.
  • Still the same mistake. Still the same reply.

    [i]"Google is an extremely good example of the "incremental" nature of invention."[/i]

    False. Google Maps is a good example of the incremental nature of innovating not inventing. The inventing took place long before the Google IPO.

    Google didn't invent the features in Google Maps. I personally played with similar features on GIS class software at NASA in the mid-90s and I'm fairly certain the applications existed prior: for at least a decade. What Google did was innovate the features - introduce them to John Carrol and the public "as if" they were new - and has won the admiration of other map sites, who now scramble to imitate Google. This was the sub-point I made in my original comment, with which John disagrees.

    Many of the features were invented at a handful of government agencies and even tied together there. Others were invented at early GIS software companies. Google innovated the features and whether ignorantly or intentionally failed to acknowledge their source. Microsoft and others imitated Google, who had in turn innovated others' work, but back there in history someone, somewhere actually invented and it wasn't the current players.

    Inventing is an action of creation from whole cloth. When one does as John C has done and equates inventing with innovating, the bar to inventing is lowered to such a degree that every minour, and even obvious, modification becomes inventing. That lowered bar is partially responsible for the debacle that is the USPTO. If the examiner - like John Carrol examining Google Maps - doesn't know which of the technologies was invented, innovated, or imitated; he's more likely to issue an improper grant of patent. It's "new to me" is not an acceptable definition of inventing, but increasingly this definition has become acceptable.

    Thus I say, if one supports equating innovating and inventing, then one tacitly supports the granting of improper patent. If one supports the freedom to innovate; one supports the violation of another's patent: intentionally or not, properly granted or not. Only by limiting either the scope of grant or the scope of enforcement can we hope to continue to innovate or invent. It all begins with defining the words properly.

    PS - Don't attack John C too much on this one. I keep promising to e-mail him my notes, but crunch mode has kept me from transcribing them. If the 65 hour weeks don't end soon, I may just have to leak them in drips and and drab.
    John Le'Brecage
    • Re: Still

      [i]Inventing is an action of creation from whole cloth. When one does as John C has done and equates inventing with innovating, the bar to inventing is lowered to such a degree that every minour, and even obvious, modification becomes inventing.[/i]

      Name an invention that you think is created from whole cloth. The phonograph? So Edison invented the theory of electricity, the science of acoustics, etc? What about the Wright brothers? They invented the theory of aerodynamics?

      I can't think of ANY invention that is ANYTHING but incremental. I'd challenge you to try, though.
      John Carroll
      • Here's one

        Invention of the 'Wheel'...of course, who knows when it was really invented, but it was done 'way-back'.
        • Re: Here's one

          Pretty much the only people who ever invented anything using the "whole cloth" definition are cavemen. And even then, someone, somewhere, will find some way to argue that core concepts used in their "invention" were actually created by monkeys. It's a never-ending cycle.
          John Carroll
        • Actually...

          People didn't invent the wheel, nature did by creating round rocks that someone noticed rolled better than square ones.
          John Carroll
          • The same way

            perpendicular storage is no invention from researchers, but rather one from Nature.
      • Invent does not equal Innovate does not equal Discover

        [i]So Edison invented the theory of electricity, the science of acoustics, etc? What about the Wright brothers? They invented the theory of aerodynamics?[/i]

        Abstract ideas are not invented, John C, they are discovered. Electricity and its behaviour are a collection of discoveries. The science of acoustics is also a collection of discoveries. The principles of aerodynamics were also discovered and not invented.

        Discovery is not an invention until the discovery is reduced to practice and given utility. Both of your assertions of Edison and the brothers Wright question abstract ideas, ergo: a null argument when we are discussing inventing and not discovering. The argument is convincing, unless one understands the difference between inventing and discovering. You almost noticed the dichotomy between inventing and discovering, John C, in your earlier reply about the wheel, but then... you abandoned it.

        Your original example was Edison's phonograph. I couldn't imagine a worse choice for summarizing inventing.
        [i]"Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.[/i]

        False. Thomas Edison innovated improvements to the phonographic recording equipment of his time. The original phonograph had been a laboratory curiosity used to study frequency and accoustics. Edison did not so much invent as innovate a device to a new use, he innovated how to reverse the process of the earlier phonograph, which recorded sound but did not play it back. Strangely, Edison reverse equipment was the same as his recording equipment, which was the same as the lab equipment. He invented nothing. He was granted a patent for innovating the invented product of others, yet, even today we connect the inventing to Edison the innovator and not those who actually invented.

        [i]"He didn't create theories of electricity, or acoustic theory, or many of the other abstract ideas which served as the foundation upon which the phonograph was built."[/i]

        These are discoveries and do not properly belong in a discussion of inventing, as I noted earlier.

        [i]"He also didn't invent technologies used to forge the metal parts used in his invention, or (probably) the technology used to create the wax drums upon which he put his initial recordings.[/i]

        What your assertions here fail to understand is another aspect of inventing and the product of it invention. Once a technology exemplar is invented and then innovated, perhaps by the inventor and perhaps by others, the invention loses one quality: [i]novelty[/i]. Eventually that which was invented becomes part of the common practice.

        One must ask if all of these technologies, from forging metal to coating wood with wax were part of the Victorian "cloth" from which inventing springs? If these inventings had already passed beyond novelty; they are no longer considered inventions - except to a historian. The phonograph itself was not part of the common scene and was considered an invention by Joe Common, even though it was merely [b]innovated[/b] from the [b]recent[/b] inventings of others outside his experience.

        By the way, and just as a footnote: wax rolls were not part of the original Edison phonograph. The original patent specified a "medium' only. Edison used, foil wrapped around a wooden spindle. Wax came much later and was once again innovated, as others had been using wax rolls for recording and playing back of telegraphic signals.

        [i]He pulled it all together, however, to create something that hadn't been seen before."[/i]

        As mentioned, Edison's device had been seen before, but not widely and not to the use for which he put it. He innovated the inventing of others. While his insight that the recording device could also be used for playback was a unique revelation; it was a discovery, not an invention. He noticed that property which already was present. Since it was already reduced to practice; Edison invented nothing with regards to the phonograph. He discovered a property of a pre-existing technology.

        Back to this comment: [i]I can't think of ANY invention that is ANYTHING but incremental.[/i]

        Never will you find me saying that inventing is not done based on the prior inventing of others. The whole cloth of inventing is [b]reducing to practice[/b] discoveries (abstract ideas or noticing what is already present through hard work or study) and those products that are already scenes a'fairre. However, inventing must incorporate elements that are not part of the scenes a'fairre.

        If a product is unique, utilitarian, and non-obvious; it can at least be tested as having been invented. What I, and many others, object to is when the inventing of others, inventing not part of the scenes a'fairre, is claimed by the innovator with no credit, or money, given to the inventor.
        John Le'Brecage
  • Sat images.

    I use the "satellite" views regularly to determine whether an area in which I will book a hotel room is industrial, suburban or rural. While the landmarks have changed over time, they've generally remained static enough for me to determine if any given hotel will afford me a good night sleep.

    Unfortuately, no satellite view could tell me that this current hotel is in the glide path of a Marine base. Thank the Ghu for late hours, because I'm not sleeping well anyhow.
    John Le'Brecage
  • Perfectly illustrates MS's "innovation" illusion

    If Google made claims to being innovative on the back of Google
    Maps alone I'd yawn. Google's innovations have revolutionised
    the search market. Hopefully we'll see a great deal more real
    innovation from them in the future (but we'll have to wait and

    John's insistence of bring a Google into a discussion of MS
    innovation is truly bizarre, he would have been just as
    embarrassing bring in Apple, Xerox, or IBM. IBM research is
    celebrating 60 years of research, and has been both amazingly
    inventive and innovative.

    MS might be many things, but clearly they are not innovative. Let
    it go.
    Richard Flude
  • "small improvements" ???

    Google search wasn't a "small improvement" - it was the first search engine that actually worked. Before Google, I used search engine aggregators, because there weren't any reliable search engines. All the aggregators did was give me a larger volume of poor information to sort through. As soon as Google went into beta public availability, I found I didn't need anything else.