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Google mapper: Take browsers to the limit

Developers need to venture beyond the lowest common denominator, says Google Maps' lead engineer.

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

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 executives.

"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.