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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
For a long time, I thought that MapQuest was one of the coolest sites on the Internet. If you can remember to pre-Internet days, you know that finding a detailed map of even your own local city wasn't always easy, and finding a particular street via that arcane map street index was nearly impossible (just look somewhere in the N-5 square). MapQuest made finding an address on a map much easier. You just enter the address and you get a map. With the addition of driving directions, this was a quantum leap forward for auto-based navigators everywhere.
MapQuest and a few others set the early standard for Internet map sites. In the early days, MapBlast was an independent competitor of Mapquest, but it is now part of the Microsoft empire, Microsoft having employed its usual practice of buying other companies which have done stuff much better than they could. MapsOnUS is another site which provides a basic mapping service, but they seem to be just licensing Microsoft's online maps to support their online yellow and white pages business. More recently, Yahoo has entered the maps fray, and even Amazon has released their own maps site which is still under development.
All of these sites operate in similar ways. You can enter an address or location and then see a map which matches that location as closely as possible. You can scroll in each of the major compass point directions and zoom in or out to get more or less detailed view. Once you find a location, you can get driving directions to or from another location. This basic functionality has worked well enough to make these sites very popular.
I'm sad to say that MapQuest has been replaced as one of the coolest sites on the Internet. That title now goes to Google Maps. The search engine juggernaut, which is well known as a site for finding things on the Internet, can now help you find things on the Earth and other local planets. Google Maps provides the same functionality as other map sites, allowing you to put in a location and see a map. From this point, however, other features make this site even more fun and useful.
Pull up a map on Google Maps and you can click and drag your mouse to scroll the map. Click on "Satellite" and you can see a satellite photo of the area you've mapped. Click on "Hybrid" and you can see the satellite photo overlaid with street and landmark names. Like other services, there is a feature to get driving directions. The additional visual information provided by the satellite feature, however, makes this maps service even more compelling. Not only can you get an idea of the streets along your route, but an idea of what buildings you might see, or at least how developed an area is.
Not content with the Earth, however, Google also offers Google Moon. This site is intended to commemorate the first manned moon landing, and provide similar functionality to Google Maps, but without driving directions or street names. Instead, you can zoom in on the sites of the various Apollo moon landings. But, don't zoom too close, lest you reveal that Google has a sense of humor as well as fun technology. Given their expanding viewpoint, can Google Mars be in our near future?