I WAS getting ready to write a serious column this week when I checked my e-mail and found one of those "You've- gotta-see-this" messages. Normally, I ignore these as time wasters, but since this one came from a mailing list of reporter-geeks who aren't easy to impress, I made my way to the suggested destination: Google's map page (http://maps.google.com).
Over the years, I've used a half-dozen Web mapping services when I've needed directions from Hither to Yon, but Google's certainly raises the bar - at least for fun. And that got me clicking around, looking for other cool mapping stuff, and, well, you know how it is. I got hooked.
Like many of Google's advanced services, the map site is in "beta," which means it's a work in progress but good enough that the folks who run the Web's most popular search engine are willing to let a few million good friends take a look at it.
One thing I determined right away is that it's not particularly accurate at locating particular addresses, although it will generally get you within a block. And its algorithms for driving directions seem a bit simplistic - it favors the most direct route, which more often than not is the slowest, particularly in the city. Google concedes that this is an issue and says it will get better.
On the good side, its maps are beautifully drawn and, unlike other services, Google allows you to pan continuously, which means you can drag the cursor across the map window to move your location continuously and seamlessly - no more pointing and clicking to move a screen at a time.
Likewise, when you ask for directions from Hither to Yon, you can pan smoothly across your entire route at any zoom level. Very slick.
But the real kicker is a new feature that appears in the upper right corner of the screen, a link that says "Satellite." It replaces the street map with a satellite or aerial photo of your location. And you can pan or zoom just as easily, with almost no hesitation or redraw time.
That means you can follow your route along a photo of the highways you'll be traveling. I don't know if this adds much utility to trip planning, but it's great fun. And, from a technical standpoint, it's a dazzling piece of work.
Google obtained the map engine when it bought a geographical information service called Keyhole, which has some amazing stuff of its own for paying customers (or the merely curious). I'll talk about that later.
One of Keyhole's bragging points is its "seamless" photo database, which makes smooth traveling across a large landscape possible. The images on Google's site come from a variety of sources, including government and private collections. Although they're stitched together, the quality, age and resolution of the images can change very quickly.
In some urban areas, you can zoom in far enough to pick out the trash cans in your back yard; in others, you'll be lucky to be able to pick out your house.
We're having a house built in a development that was launched about two years ago. When I punched in our new address, I got an image showing the area when it was first being graded. So I assume the photos of nearby areas are two to three years old as well.
Google has also brought the flexibility of its search prompt to the mapping game. You don't have to fill in forms - just type an address. For example, to find The Sun, I can type "501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore Md." Likewise, for driving directions, you can just type two addresses with the word "to" between them, as in "A" to "B."
If you're looking for a particular business or a landmark, you can try typing just the name, such as Baltimore Sun or Camden Yards.
Like other mapping services such as Yahoo and MapQuest, Google can locate various types of businesses and other landmarks, a major source of revenue for "free" mapping services. But Google's search uses something closer to natural language than I've seen elsewhere. To find a pizza parlor near The Sun, I can type "Pizza near 501 N. Calvert St." and so on.
Google will locate all the pizza parlors nearby and identify them with icons on your map or satellite image. Click on any icon, and the name and a bubble with the name and address of the business pops up.
There's also a list of pizza parlors on the right side of the screen. Pick any one and the bubble pops up over the correct spot on the map; the software even scrolls to the right place if the location is off the screen.
The satellite mapping service still has a way to go. In exurban and rural areas and over smaller cities, the detail level may be too low to be useful. And sometimes, when the service is under heavy use, it may not completely redraw an image map, leaving you with blank boxes on the screen.
But it's an intriguing start. If you want good driving directions and a bit more accuracy, try Yahoo, MapQuest.com, or MapBlast.com (which also powers MSN Maps). But if you want to see the future of Web mapping, Google is worth a visit.
Now, let's say you've done that and you get hooked on satellite imagery. There are plenty of other sources on the Web. A good starting place is the U.S. Geologic Survey's National Map site (www.nationalmap.gov). Its satellite image server is slow but fascinating.
Good commercial sources include terraserver.com and Globexplorer.com, which can deliver high-resolution images of any area (and nicely done prints) for a fee.
The most fascinating is Google's new subsidiary, Keyhole.com, a subscription service primarily used by business and government agencies. It not only provides standard satellite images, but it also allows you to tilt them, zoom in and "fly" through them in something resembling real 3D.
A basic consumer subscription is $29.95 a year. But you can download a seven-day trial package and take the controls. Whether you eventually buy in or not, it's a real trip.