Cartographers, beware: The map wars have begun.
First Apple built maps, and now Facebook wants its own mapping service. In the tech industry, maps have become essential, primarily because of the explosion of mobile devices, on which maps are a critical application. Maps are also seen as the gateway to commerce, both online and in the real world.
Yet even as maps have become a must-have service, Google, the leader in online mapping so far, is showing that experience pays dividends.
Google unveiled a new Google Maps, by far the biggest redesign since it introduced Maps eight years ago. Google announced the maps at its annual I/O developers conference, where it also showed off new tools for search, photo editing and to-do lists, along with a music service and features for Android and Chrome apps. Many of the announcements had an undercurrent - one-upping Apple. From its new music and photo services to maps to voice commands that rival Siri on the iPhone, Google seemed to be offering alternatives to Apple products.
But the new maps service was the biggest announcement.
"The future of search starts with maps. That's where all the commerce is going to be done, and that's what everyone's fighting out," said John Malloy, a partner at BlueRun Ventures, which invested in Waze, a crowdsourced mapping service that Facebook has shown interest in acquiring. "To monetize mobile traffic, maps are a critical ingredient."
Google's revision of its map service comes less than a year after Apple removed Google Maps from the iPhone and replaced it with its own version, which has had problems with accuracy. Facebook and Microsoft also think maps are so important that they need their own services.
When users who are logged into Google visit Maps, they will see the places they frequently visit highlighted, like restaurants, museums and their home. Google learns the places they go by drawing information from all of Google's services - including search and Maps history, Google Plus posts and information in users' Gmail inboxes.
When users visit a new city, Google will recommend places to go based on their preferences and those of people with similar tastes. The maps change in real time, so if you click on a museum, other museums in the city pop up and the small roads and landmarks needed to navigate to that museum appear.
"We can build a unique map for every place and every click," said Bernhard Seefeld, the product management director for Google Maps.
The new service is available only to people who sign up for it to start. It will come to mobile devices later.
Local search on maps is now easier to use, for advertisers as well as for consumers. Search results, which are labeled ads or offers, can be sponsored listings or coupons from nearby businesses.
Google Earth, which shows 3-dimensional satellite imagery, is now incorporated into the online version of Google Maps, instead of being accessible only as an app to download
Google can do this because of a new technology that renders graphics inside a browser, instead of downloading images from a server.
Google's chief executive, Larry Page, said the new maps, which have a cleaner and more intuitive layout, fit into one of the company's major themes.
"It's getting technology out of the way," said Page, standing in front of a giant, real-time black and gold view of the Earth from Google Earth. "All the context that's in your life, all these different sensors are going to pick that up and make your life better."
Google also emphasized that specific devices would not matter as much as the ability to do the same things across devices.
"It's a multiscreen world," said Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president for Android, Chrome and Google Apps, talking about not just laptops and phones but Internet-connected watches, thermostats, cars and Google Glass, too. "These are all displays with a lot of computing power and sensors, and that's why we view this as one of the most important moments in computing."
Google took the opportunity to jab at Apple's recent problems with inaccurate maps.
Referring to Google's new iPhone maps app, Daniel Graf, Google's director of maps, said, "People called it sleek, simple, beautiful, and let's not forget, accurate."
Google took on iPhoto by increasing the free photo storage on Google Plus and trying to use algorithms to edit photos as a human would. When users upload a batch of photos, Google's algorithms will sort through them and try to choose the best.
And a new feature Google calls "auto awesome" stitches together a series of snapshots into a GIF, or merges multiple shots into a single image, so everyone in a group is smiling, for instance.
Google also introduced a streaming music feature, with the unwieldy name of Google Play Music All Access. Like Spotify or Rhapsody, it lets users listen to millions of songs online, instead of downloading them, for $9.99 a month. It also has a Pandora-like Internet radio feature.
With All Access, Google appeared to beat Apple to the streaming market. Apple is said to be developing an Internet radio feature for its mobile devices, although its progress has reportedly been slowed by negotiations with music companies over licensing rates.
An update to Google Now, a competitor to Apple's Siri, lets people ask their phones to remind them to pick up milk the next time they are in a grocery store, and an alert will automatically pop up when they step into a Safeway. Ask, "How far from here to Santa Cruz?" and Google will use location information to know where "here" is.
Despite the flashy announcements, one type of news was noticeably absent from the event - major hardware or Android announcements, which are usually made here.
"We felt this time that I/O would be incomplete without the full Google story, and now the Google story is far more focused and sharper than it has been in the last few years," said Amit Singhal, Google's senior vice president of search.
The conference had uniquely Google additions, including 1,800 pounds of snacks and sensors placed throughout the building to capture data like motion, noise, temperature and pressure. During the event, Google visualized all this data in real time on an indoor map.
Six thousand software developers, a fair number of them wearing Google Glass, cheered loudly as Google made each announcement, including arcane technical ones about Android and Chrome apps. Perhaps they were fueled by all the free food.