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Google Maps under attack?!? August 18, 2009

Posted by Sacha in /dev/null, IT.

Despites their huge R&D staff, and outside of their search/ads engine, I always thought that very little (usable) innovation came out of Google’s R&D centers: most of the tools you’re using on a daily basis are the refinement of external acquisitions (ok, ok, they’ve build an AJAX mail and calendar interface as well… which I hope didn’t require thousands of engineers). Anyway, Google Maps is one of those external acquisitions that I like very much.

One of the problems I have with Google Maps though is how (un-)recent street information and satellite pictures are. For example, while relatively recent, the block of three building where I live isn’t mentioned on the map, and show as a bucolic field on the satellite view. But I can insure you the place where I live does indeed exist and that Switzerland isn’t lacking any satellite activity. So I am always looking for a better alternative. MSFT’s Bing Maps has even worse maps, same for the franco-french Géoportail which is probably fine for France but not for anywhere else (including Switzerland). At a time when we want everything to be “on-demand” with the best possible accuracy, isn’t it strange that we keep using out-dated information (sometimes as long as 4 years old) for geo-located activities?!? It seems that because Google Maps UI and API are good, we don’t care relying on outdated information.

Consequently, when I saw the flurry of news related to Indian-government service providing a serious competitor to Google Maps, ni une, ni deux, I jumped on my mouse to be one of the first to use Bhuvan, the revolution in action!

One of Bhuvan advertised features is that it is well suited for people with a low-bandwidth Internet access – which still represents a large proportion of Internet users. Well, actually, I quickly realized you were supposed to read this differently and that a better phrasing was: “no need to have a fast Internet connection, Bhuvan’s web site is so slow that you won’t need it”. Anyway, after a few nervous clicks, I still couldn’t see any high quality map. AJAX-on-demand-junkie that I am, I didn’t realize that in order to use Bhuvan, I had to:

  • download a Windows-only/IE-only plugin (I got lucky and was able to download it at 8kb/s)
  • register on the web site and share my name, phone number, e-mail, location, etc.

OK, so it is fine to have a low-bandwidth Internet connection, but you’d better have a recent Windows installed and no fear of sharing your personal information with the Indian government. Anyway, those are just details compared to the grand revolution I was about to take part in. So I switched to my Windows laptop, installed the plugin and gave away my personal information.

Once done, I zoomed onto Switzerland and … And, nothing. What was only mentioned in some articles, and certainly not in their title, is that Bhuvan aims at becoming a Google Maps competitor but … “only” for India (which, I agree, do represent a big chunk of the planet). OK, my bad, I should always read the fine prints. Since I am a “citoyen du monde“, I decided to put myself in the shoes of an Indian citizen and zoom in some random places in India. Result? Not good. At all. At first, I thought more detailed maps were being slowly streamed to my machine, but no, all available information was already there, in my “browser” (i.e. more precisely a .Net widget running inside IE, developped by … a US company).

So, is Bhuvan a serious competitor to Google Maps? If you are a Windows and IE user, do not mind installing third-party binaries and sharing personal information with the Indian Government, care only about Indian maps and do not care about detailed maps: yes, it is a serious contender. Otherwise, it is not.

I know, I look like I am not being fair picking up exclusively on Bhuvan’s defficiencies. Truth is that I love the idea that a government-funded entity shows value by making the result of some of its investments accessible to its citizens. This happens too rarely. But what I didn’t like was the big media buzz they initiated, painting themselves at the “Google Maps killer”. My advice: stay humble and if you are to make such strong statements, you’d better be ready. If not, what was initially a great initiative will just make you look bad. In the good spirit of Open Source, maybe they should have done a simple press release, grown their community, fixed their bugs and technical defficiencies and, in a few years time, let the “community” state that their prefer Bhuvan to Google Maps, that would be a real win. Next time maybe…





1. Michael Neale - August 18, 2009

Hey Sacha – apparently Google Maps didn’t start out as the awesome tool for the web – although some of the tech and the muscle was aquired (in my fine city of Sydney, no less) – the idea and effort (both immense) to make it work on the web in any browser was all google engineering might. Nothing to sneeze at.

2. Sacha - August 18, 2009

Com’on Michael, providing a web client to an existing technology (the hard part IMO is to define the streaming tech and protocol as well as the fast database processing, not the client itself) would have taken two months of your time 😉

3. Sacha - August 18, 2009

… to put that in perspective: I am not saying that Google Maps is bad, I guess you understood through my post that I think they are clearly the best today and none of the existing “alternatives” gets anywhere close to what Google provides. That being said, I am not “impressed” by the amount of innovation coming out of a 2.8 billion USD R&D budget, especially given all of the acquisitions they did on top of that budget.

4. Michael Neale - August 18, 2009

Well assuming the tech existed at the levels of scalability that was needed for the user experience, sure (I don’t know if it was) but what impressed me is the chutzpah to (way back then) decide that they *will* deliver it through the web, and that it would be awesome. I guess that is an achievement of vision and believe more then R&D, true.

5. Sacha - August 18, 2009

agreed, Google was key in promoting the Web as a full-fledge delivery mechanism.

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