Google And Photo Maps

Margaret Riegel

TECHNO FILES

An Update on Stuff That’s Cool (Like Google’s Photo Maps)
By JAMES FALLOWS

HIS is a "where are they now?" report on some products and innovations previously described in this space.

Let’s start with Skype. This is the system that allows anyone with a computer and a broadband connection to call mobile or land-line telephones almost anywhere on earth for pennies per minute. When two people are at computers running Skype, they can talk to each other (using a headset or microphone) as long as they want, with sound quality far better than that of telephones, absolutely free. Skype conference calls can include up to five participants – I have used this feature to talk simultaneously, from Washington, with people in England, New Zealand and California, at no cost to any of us. Working out the time zones was the real challenge.

Skype resembles Google, the gold standard of modern computing, in several ways. Its adoption rate has been phenomenal. When I wrote about it last September, it had been downloaded a total of 21 million times. Now the total is 100 million, and at any given moment more than two million Skype conversations are under way. Like Google, Skype keeps introducing new features – for instance, "SkypeIn," released two days ago, which allows users to create a local phone number and have all calls to that number forwarded to the user’s Skype connection, wherever in the world that might happen to be. As with Google, once you get used to Skype, it’s hard to imagine doing without.

Also as with Google, Skype’s problems mainly arise from its rapidly growing worldwide reach. For Google, the problem has been how much to tailor its results to varying political sensibilities: its versions in Germany and France, for instance, screen out many neo-Nazi sites. Skype has had to cope with the abundance of fraudulent credit cards. For the time being, it declines most credit cards and prefers payment via PayPal.

Next, Google itself. In February, it introduced Google Maps, a faster and better-looking alternative to MapQuest and other online mapping sites. Last month it added a touch that made Google Maps different from any competitor: high-resolution aerial photos of the area covered by the maps, which visitors can zoom in on for a closer bird’s-eye view. (These photos came from Keyhole, a company Google bought last year.) Go to http://www.maps.google.com, enter a ZIP code or address, and then click the "satellite" button to switch from map to photo. In either view you can get driving instructions from one point to another, as with other map sites. But when the route is traced in the photos, the turns and waypoints are much more vivid.

But don’t try this until you have an hour or two to spare. It is difficult to resist the temptation to zoom down to your own house, then your childhood elementary school, then Honolulu, then Disneyland. Not all of the country is shown in super-high-resolution: in general, the greater the population density, the sharper the image. After a lot of prowling around, I’ve found only part of the American landmass where the aerial view is deliberately obscured – and it’s not the White House. (Answer next time.) If you click on the screen, you can pan from place to place, as if flying. A waste of time, perhaps, but fascinating.

The real importance of Google’s map and satellite program, however, is not its impressive exterior but the novel technology, known as Ajax, that lies beneath. About that, and its implications for Google and other companies, there will be more to say in a future column.

Next up, public access to publicly financed data. Previously I mentioned the Bush administration’s admirable decision to let the National Weather Service keep distributing its data on free Web sites, rather than funneling it through commercial services. But now the administration is proposing an enormous step in the opposite direction.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or N.G.A., is the main map-producing office in the Pentagon. Its detailed topographic studies, produced at public expense, have for decades been the basis of many other products; in particular, virtually every chart used by the nation’s airlines relies on the agency’s data. Citing security concerns and a few other reasons, the administration now proposes to withdraw all of its aeronautical material from public use on Oct. 1. Through June 1, the N.G.A. will accept comments on this proposal at its Web site, http://www.nga.mil. Check out its arguments, plus the case for continued openness, made at the press-release portion of http://www.cartographic.com, and let the agency hear from you.

Finally, mind mapping software, the focus of last month’s column. Most of the correspondence about that column addressed an apparent anomaly: if mind mapping is so great for putting ideas in visual form, why was there no mention of programs designed for the leader in visually intuitive computing, the Macintosh?

The narrow answer is that the two programs I praised, MindManager and ResultsManager, will (like most other Windows software) run on the Mac under the Virtual PC utility that Microsoft sells for $129. Also, Robert Gordon, chief executive of the company that makes MindManager, says that it is "seriously considering" producing a native Mac version. (Impatient Mac users: write to him, not me.)

BUT the broader answer is that programs to collect information and organize ideas are so numerous, varied and rapidly proliferating that a list of the good ones soon grows very long.

Want a mind-mapper designed specifically for the Mac? There’s Inspiration ($69 from http://www.inspiration.com; PC version available too), which is mainly marketed to schools but is also useful for other writing projects. Or FreeMind, which lacks a few advanced features, but is free (from freemind.sourceforge.net). Or ConceptDraw Mindmap ($149, from http://www.csodessa.com), which runs on the Mac and is made by a company in Ukraine. MindGenius – yes, the names do get sort of creepy – is a mapper for the PC that costs $59 and comes from http://www.mindgenius.com in Scotland.

NoteTaker ($69.95 from http://www.aquaminds.com) is an attractive and powerful Mac-only data organizer. Axon Idea Processor is an unattractive and powerful PC-only organizer. It is $135, from web.singnet.com.sg/~axon2000 in Singapore.) I hope to say more about these in the future – along with the likes of: BrainStorm ($75, from http://www.brainstormsw.com in England); ADM or Advanced Data Manager ($129, from http://www.adm21.net in Canada); Tinderbox ($165, Mac-only, from http://www.eastgate.com/tinderbox in Massachusetts); Omea Pro ($49 from http://www.jetbrains.com in the Czech Republic); Zoot ($99 from http://www.zootsoftware.com in Florida); and whatever promising newcomers have appeared by then, from whatever odd corners of the world. In the meantime, try them yourself.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. E-mail: tfiles@nytimes.com.

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