Not long ago we were instructed to think of cyberspace--the digital realm that opens when you go online--as a territory of its own. But these days you don't hear much about cyberspace as a foreign country. Instead, as the Net becomes more and more geographically aware, we're using it to enhance our experiences in the realm of terra firma. The metaphor for this, as well as the potential center for such activity, is the literal mapping of our Earth, delivered piece by piece by piece to our screens--along with the location of the nearest pizzeria.
Google was first among search leaders to integrate high-resolution space photos into its service. After acquiring a satellite-imagery company named Keyhole, it introduced Google Earth, allowing you to toggle between a traditional cartographic view and the actual picture from space. Google sightseers can zoom in close enough to see airplanes parked in the desert, the baseball diamond at Wrigley Field and cars in the Mall of America parking lot.
Not to be outdone, Microsoft last week announced its own satellite mapping function for its MSN Search. Microsoft Virtual Earth adds a new twist: an additional 45-degree-angle view of every location in a major city, as seen by a small, low-flying plane. This side-on view "gives a more recognizable image and lets you see what it's like there," says Microsoft's Steve Lawler.
Other sites take a more grounded approach to the virtual Earth. A9, the search business launched by Amazon.com, sent a fleet of SUVs into more than 10 major cities to snap photos of every storefront (when you search for a business in its Yellow Pages you see the building). And InfoUSA is in the process of taking still shots of every business in every American city.
Not everyone is sold on this effort. "After you've seen your house and all those other buildings that look like toothpicks from that height, what do you do?" asked Barry Diller last week at a conference called "All Things Digital." (Diller's Internet holding includes the Ask Jeeves search site.)
Actually, quite a lot. "We look at geography as another way to organize the Web," says Google's John Hanke, a sentiment endorsed by his competitors. Instead of a desktop or search field, the Earth itself becomes a front-end to information. While the first annotations to the maps (finding the nearest gas station, etc.) are obvious, eventually you will be able to click on geo-based information provided by experts, residents or your friends. "We call it global access to local knowledge," says Microsoft's Lawler. We can also expect the maps to merge with other applications that feed up-to-the-minute information about weather, construction and other factors. Innovative hackers have already created an unauthorized mash-up of Google's maps with Yahoo's real-time traffic application.
With the advent of mobile phones that report our location, watch for the emergence of a new category of services known as Mobile Social Software (abbreviated MoSoSo, which sounds like a hip new neighborhood in London). The best example to date is an application called Dodgeball, which lets you know when your friends, or their friends, are close by. (Google recently bought the company.) Yahoo's head of local search Paul Levine says that his company's social-networking component Yahoo 360 will eventually integrate with its maps. "The idea of connecting local search, mobile apps and people's social connections is important to us," he says.
In the meantime, expect more detailed depictions of the Earth, linked to gobs of information about what's on or what happened on any particular piece of sod. Why talk about cyberspace when the World Wide Web is so perfectly named?