Never Lost Again: The Google Mapping Revolution That Sparked New Industries and Augmented Our Reality
May 29, 2018
Bill Kilday tells the story of Google Maps from the perspective of someone who witnessed its creation.
I actually like getting lost. It's a predilection I've picked up from my parents. Whenever they have time, they like to avoid the freeways when they travel, pointing the nose of their car in the general direction they're headed and take off on the nation's blue highways* without a map or worry for time.
*"On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it's that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself." —William Lest Heat Moon, Blue Highways
It's an especially pleasant pastime on the backroads of Wisconsin, where the landscape varies from the picturesque Driftless Region that inspired the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright to the forests and farmlands of the state's Central Plain, from the gently rolling Lowlands that stretch along the eastern border of the state along Lake Michigan and parts of the north along Lake Superior to the more heavily forested Uplands where the pine trees take on an almost Dr. Seussian character, and the Earth smells different than any other place I've ever visited—a perpetual mix of pine, dewy moss, and fresh lake water permeating the air.
Of course, with research showing that smartphone penetration is between 70 to 80 percent in the United States, few of us are ever really lost these days. My wife and I navigated our way to a remote cabin in the Hiawatha National Forest on Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the dead of night last summer. Ten years ago, there would have been a near-zero chance we would have been able to do so. With our two young children and my mother-in-law along with us, there is an absolute zero chance we would have even attempted it.
"But, by 2010," writes Bill Kilday in his new book, Never Lost Again, "a navigation and mapping technology had changed everything forever." With our smart phones' GPS-enabled Google Maps, the only thing that worried my wife and I was losing our cellphone signal in the remoteness of the UP. Kilday knows the story of how that came to be better than most. As the marketing director of Keyhole, the predecessor to Google Maps that was bought by Google in 2004, he "was there to witness its creation."
In the fall of 2004, Google combined the two teams with a small group of existing Google employees in building 41 in the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, gave them zero direction, unlimited resources, and presented the teams with a secret problem: Twenty-five percent of all queries being typed into the simple white Google search box were looking for a map.
And guess what? Google had no map.
It's almost hard to remember that was a reality such a short time ago. And that is largely because what happened over the next six years:
Six years later, Google's mapping products—run by several key members of the former Keyhole team—had one billion monthly active users and became the number one consumer mapping service worldwide. From zero users to a billion users monthly. In six years.
Not only that, a whole new entrepreneurial ecosystem sprouted up based upon the freely available Google Maps API, which provided a "blank sheet of paper on top of which whole new businesses could be drawn." With the release of the iPhone, and later Android, that map of everything and all the services and apps built upon it, now fits in our pocket. It can help us find, evaluate via others' reviews, and book a cabin in the wildness of the Upper Peninsula, and guide us there in the dead of the very dark Upper Peninsula night, clinging to a single bar of coverage for a good portion of the final four hours. At work, we've been able to take a 360-degree-tour inside various venues in New York City while planning our annual business books awards and industry appreciation party from Milwaukee. I've used the Google Earth app (discussed in detail in Chapter 14: "Dashboard for the Planet") to give my children an idea of the scale we exist on, zooming in from the rotating image of the entire globe down to the Western Hemisphere, then in on North America, finding Lake Michigan at its heart, zeroing in on Milwaukee's downtown skirting the lake, then scanning over five miles to the west to one of the brightest jewels in Milwaukee's "Emerald Necklace" of green spaces—the Frederick Law Olmsted designed Washington Park—from which we can trace the well-known route to our home a few blocks away. It's an exercise that leaves me as much in awe and delight as my children.
Yes. I like getting lost. But most of the time, we just don't have that kind of time or that luxury. We are on a schedule, and have to get from point A to point B to points C and D as efficiently as possible. And sometimes, even when we have time to kill, it's nice to use that pause to find our exact place on the planet with an app that still seems nearly magical—as any significantly advanced technology does. Bill Kilday tells the fascinating story of how all that's now possible in Never Lost Again.
We have 20 copies available.