David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale had proposed using software to create a computer simulation of the physical world, making it possible to map everything from traffic flow and building layouts to sales and currency data on a computer screen. Mr. Gelernter’s idea came a step closer to reality in the last few weeks when both Google and Yahoo published documentation making it significantly easier for programmers to link virtually any kind of Internet data to Web-based maps and, in Google’s case, satellite imagery.
Since the Google and Yahoo tools were released, their uses have been demonstrated in dozens of ways by hobbyists and companies, including an annotated map guide to the California wineries and restaurants that appeared in the movie “Sideways” and instant maps showing the locations of the recent bombing attacks in London. Later this summer, Microsoft plans to introduce a competing service, Virtual Earth, with software that programmers will be able to use in similarly creative ways. So far the uses have been noncommercial. But Yahoo, Google and Microsoft are creating the services with the expectation that they will become a focal point in one of the next significant growth areas in Internet advertising: contextual advertisements tied to specific locations. Such ads would be embedded in maps generated by a search query or run alongside them.
While the companies have not yet disclosed how they intend to profit, one likely model is that the programming tools would be licensed on the basis of a revenue split from the advertising generated by use of the maps. Viewed broadly, the new services represent a shift to what is being described as “Web 2.0,” a new generation of Internet software technologies that will seamlessly plug together, much like Lego blocks, in new and unexpected ways.