Assistant Managing Director,
Microsoft Research India,
In early 2003, as military disturbances in Iraq unfolded, CNN “zoomed in on, over and around the Iraqi landscape to help viewers see where the war was being fought” (San Jose Mercury News, March 22, 2003).
The zooming happened on Earthviewer . org/), an interactive map by Keyhole, a company that streamed 3D terrain data over the Internet to a downloadable client application. If there were viewers who were not by then familiar with online map sites such as MapPoint, MapBlast, MapQuest, or Yahoo! Maps, they got their first glimpse into the exciting future of the digital geographics industry. Strictly speaking, most online maps wouldn’t fit within a traditional definition of “Geographic Information System.” This is perhaps a result of the culture of GIS industry professionals, who see a technical and cartographic background as a prerequisite to operating a true GIS, such as ESRI’s ArcGIS (https://www.esri.com). It is exactly the opening up of this esoteric culture to mainstream consumers, however, that is the topic of this article, and as with any kind of mainstreaming, definitions used by experts often become diluted. (Here’s one slightly wistful perspective, by a GIS industry veteran: https://www.directionsmag.com/editorials.php?article_id=2085& trv=1) As GIS reaches wider audiences, the term itself will encompass more than what today’s GIS professionals consider GIS, and this is perhaps the first step in the mainstreaming of GIS.
Most readers of this article will no doubt be familiar with Google Local (https://maps.google.com) and Microsoft’s Windows Live Local (https://local.live.com). With such industry giants competing head to head, online mapping is certain to mature quickly to the point where mapping software and GIS merge into a single spectrum, with the industry blurring the lines between data servers and relational databases, APIs and web services; and mash-ups and applications.