Justin O'Beirne

Justin O'Beirne of San Francisco, California. Essays, projects, and contact information.



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“Tactile” | Google’s 2013 Cartography Change

Less than a year after the Apple Maps debacle, Google announced a dramatically redesigned map of its own:

But it released its new map a bit differently than Apple or Bing.

As soon as it was announced, Google allowed anyone interested to request an invitation to a “beta” version of the new map—a brilliant move buying Google three things:

(1) It kept the new map’s initial user-base small and contained.

(2) Because the new map could only be used while signed in, it allowed Google to carefully monitor and study each invitee’s behavior — and make behavior-driven improvements.

(3) Designating the new map as a “beta” allowed Google to manage user expectations; i.e., “beta” = “expect bugs”.

As expected, Google’s most passionate and vocal users (i.e., those most likely to ignite an online firestorm if displeased) requested invitations — as did those who couldn’t resist the exclusivity of invite-only access to a new Google product.

Google then went on to spend more than ten months collecting feedback, fixing bugs, and tweaking and re-tweaking the map before finally releasing it to the rest of its user base (which was nearing one billion users in those days).

But here was another stroke of genius: instead of releasing its map to everyone on the same day, it carefully rolled it out to different segments of users over a three week period.

This was in stark contrast to Bing and Apple, who had released their maps on a single day — and in doing so, created instant mobs out of their user-bases.

But in having twenty-one release days (instead of just one), Google effectively compartmentalized its user-base, guaranteeing that any mob that formed would be small and that any fires that broke out would quickly be contained. There would be no massive pile on as there was in the wake of Apple’s release. And if anything started to go bad during the first few days, Google could simply switch off the spigot.

But perhaps the most important thing that Google did differently was that it gave its users an escape hatch—an easy way to revert back to the old version anytime they wanted, no questions asked. In other words, no one was forced to use Google’s new map. And it made all the difference.


*   *   *


Bing and Apple had thrown their users into scalding water—water so hot, that their users jumped right back out. But Google had boiled them slowly, so slowly that they never even noticed. And in comparison to Bing and Apple, Google’s release was anti-climactic. There was no revolt. No outcry. No uproar. It was one of the most graceful cartography releases in history—a release as artful as the map itself.

Boiling frogs, indeed.


*   *   *


Looking back over Google Maps’s history, the cautious approach we saw in 2013 seems to have been Google’s modus operandi all along.

Though Google Maps looks completely different today than it did at its launch in 2005…

…it has gotten that way by evolving slowly and gradually:

The maps above and below show a series of small, iterative enhancements — never anything too big or surprising.

Just a slow, but steady progression.

So if history is any guide, the map has likely changed very little with Google’s most recent iteration—with minimal impact to our Comparison.

But that’s not going to stop us from taking a look anyway…


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