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Google Maps Street View Succeeds Where Other Giants Have Stumbled

The new Street View feature in Google Maps is positively blowing up. People are aimlessly wandering around virtual San Francisco and virtual New York, looking at their houses and their favorite hang-outs. Most users don’t even seem to mind the "creep factor" implicit in the ability to zoom in on bedroom windows and pedestrians’ faces — It’s just too cool.

But one question we keep getting asked is "Haven’t we seen this before?"

The short answer is yes. Amazon and Microsoft have both released similar products in the past. So if it’s nothing new, why did Google’s product capture the interest of the entire web? I see the reasons being very simple.

It’s accessible. Street Views run as a simple Flash pop-up. If your browser supports Ajax and you’re running the latest Flash plug-in, you can use it. That’s over 80% the web according to Adobe, with many thanks to MySpace.

It’s easy to use.
Just like most Google apps, picking it up is a no-brainer. There are big navigation arrows to click on once you’re inside the window, and dragging the picture rotates the viewpoint. Drag the little man to a new point on the map when you want to jump.

It looks good.
The photos are stitched together almost seamlessly. The imagery is sharp and the quality is excellent at full zoom. There’s a lot to discover by just wandering around — It’s an immersive experience.

Earlier efforts have stumbled by missing one or more of these key points.

Amazon’s launched its BlockView product in 2005. A9 coded up a mapping tool that attached photographs of storefronts to address searches. The effect is that you’d see a photo of the building you were searching for if it was a business or service. There was even a Greasemonkey hack to add similar functionality to Google Maps. The problem: it wasn’t "real world" enough, and the imagery wasn’t as complete as Google’s Street View. Amazon eventually nuked its maps service altogether in 2006, and A9 head Udi Manber jumped ship to work for Google as VP of engineering.

Microsoft followed in 2006 with its street-level view in Live Maps. Redmond offered the photo imagery as a technology preview of its Virtual Earth mapping platform. Microsoft’s street-level features are still online at the Local Live preview site, but it isn’t part of the default Live maps experience and the buzz has died down. The company is also doing some cool things with its Virtual Earth 3D product, but it requires a plug-in that only works on Windows computers with DirectX. These accessibility problems have hurt Microsoft’s service.

What do you think? Why did Google Maps Street View succeed when other, earlier products failed to catch on? And are there any services from smaller companies that deserve more attention? Leave your thoughts in the comments.