Google Maps and innovation

Innovation is incremental, and nobody demonstrates that better than 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.