TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Google Mapper: Take Browsers to the Limit

Google Mapper: Take Browsers to the Limit

Renai LeMay (
Fri, 29 Jul 2005 00:30:50 -0500

By Renai LeMay

SYDNEY -- The only way to transform the Web into the desktop platform
of the future is to fully embrace bleeding-edge features in browser

This advice came from the lead engineer of the Google Maps project,
Lars Rasmussen.

Speaking at a conference on Web engineering here, Rasmussen cited
Google Maps' use of the XSL+ (Extensible Stylesheet Language) standard
and Microsoft's Vector Markup Language, which he said were useful
technologies seldom used by Web developers. Both are supported only by
certain browsers.

If a Web application takes advantage of the best technologies a user's
browser can offer, then "each individual gets the sexiest experience
in their browser," he said.

"Go beyond browsers' lowest common denominator," he advised developers.

For example, Maps can command Internet Explorer to use VML (Vector
Markup Language) to display a blue line between geographical points,
but use the PNG (Portable Network Graphics) format and a linear
description for the Firefox browser.

The Sydney-based developer said the release of Maps created a critical
mass of interest from the programming community in the development of
AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) applications, or Web
applications with sophisticated graphics.

"Google Maps was originally a C++ app intended to be downloaded
separately," he recalled, harking back to the days before the
acquisition of his start-up company, Where 2 Technologies, by Google
last October.

However, that changed when Rasmussen and his colleagues--looking for
some venture capital -- pitched their mapping expertise to Google.

At that point, the team changed their development model and started
focusing on the Web instead. "We were surprised by the things you
could do in a Web browser," he said.

First, the Web allows rapid deployment and there is no software for
users to install. It's also much easier to make sure code runs on
multiple browsers compared with multiple operating systems like Mac OS
X and Windows.

The downside is that browsers don't give programmers full access to a
computer's resources such as memory, process power and hard disk
space. This is a bottleneck the engineer sees being removed in future,
although he thinks the simplicity of the current Web-browsing
experience needs to be maintained.

As such, Rasmussen remains disappointed with Google Earth, which is
similar to Maps but utilizes three-dimensional modeling and has to be
downloaded before use. "Much as we have tried, we haven't been able to
do this in JavaScript," he said, expressing hope that Google Earth and
Maps would eventually be merged into one Web application.

According to Rasmussen, Google is looking for Web mapping experts to
beef up its Sydney office. The primary driver to obtaining resources
is somewhat unique at Google -- the bottom line is whether users will
find its projects useful or otherwise, Rasmussen said.

In addition, the company will not shy away from releasing unfinished
products to its user base, who in turn provide valuable feedback --
when Maps first launched, it received 5,000 e-mails a day.

Recalling an incident which took place early in his career at Google,
Rasmussen said one day he was unexpectedly summoned into a meeting
with the company's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and other

"I was preparing my defense," he said, for fear the immaturity of his
project would come under fire. Instead, Page told him Maps worked well
enough to launch immediately.

Working for Google has other advantages, he said, adding that when a
bug that caused Maps to malfunction with the Firefox browser was
discovered, "we called up the Firefox (lead engineer) the weekend
before launch, and he came around and plugged in his debugging code."

While interest in the Maps project has always been relatively strong,
the engineer said it skyrocketed when satellite imagery was added. Web
traffic levels increased overnight by a factor of 10 to 15 times,
Rasmussen said.

Although life at Google is good, it's not always predictable. The
company's moon mapping service -- which launched on the anniversary of
the original moon landing -- turned out to be partly a practical joke
on Rasmussen.

"I was getting all these congratulatory e-mails and I didn't know what
the heck was going on," he said, noting Moon was developed in the
U.S. One e-mail was from a friend of astronaut Neil Armstrong, who
apparently appreciated the software.

Ultimately the engineer is extremely enthusiastic about his project,
which has in recent times seen a myriad of third-party programmers use
its now-public programming interfaces to add external
functionality. Even Microsoft's competing Virtual Earth product --
released this week -- was praised by Rasmussen.

"It's quite good," he grudgingly admitted.

Renai LeMay of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.

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