Google's new software makes the world smaller.
Just like any other industry, the computing world is continually on the lookout for the next big thing - whenever you get geeks, programmers and industry watchers together you will hear them talk about the 'killer app' - 'app' being the 'cool' shorthand term for application. The idea is that those behind the next such 'app' will take the world by storm and get bucketfuls of cash. What it means is that every new programme, however limited its innovation, is hailed as the 'killer app'.
So it was with some cynicism that I downloaded the latest piece of software that has been lauded from the rooftops. Google Earth is a freely available piece of software that allows users to zoom down on the world, using extremely high resolution satellite photographs taken a few years ago.
You start off with a globe of the earth, rotate it round until your desired country is visible, and zoom in. For the limited (but growing) areas that Google has obtained the images for, you can zoom down enough to see individual buildings, roads and other features. For instance, if I zoom down to my estate in east London I can clearly make out parked cars, or the trains on the nearby railway. However, not everywhere is so clearly visible. For example, only eastern Birmingham is visible in high resolution - if you live in the west of the city you can only make out the largest of features.
The US is one of the areas with the best coverage. Some cities have such high resolution that you can make out people playing tennis in parks and rowing on lakes. But in most parts of the world you are limited to viewing large features - towns, roads, forests and mountains.
Of course you don't need high resolution to view some of the most interesting bits of the globe - Google Earth allows you to fly down the Grand Canyon, circle Mount Everest, or visit the pyramids in Egypt.
There's nothing new about being able to look at maps online - Multimap has been helping people print out street maps of British cities for several years now. And as soon as someone put a map online, someone else found a way of trying to sell you pizza or car hire based on the area you were looking at.
Google have taken it one step further. They've integrated their database of shops, services and places into the program - so if you want to see all the fast food restaurants in North America you can just click a button, and they offer you ways to print directions, measure distances and find your way around.
They are also keen to point out the classroom uses - it's very easy for teachers to demonstrate how little water there is in the Sahara, or show how rivers flow. But there are some bits of the world you can't see. It's illegal for US companies to produce high resolution images of Israel, so you can't zoom and see the wall built to segregate Palestinians. And while it's impossible to view clearly half the streets of Birmingham, you have no difficultly zooming along the highways of cities in Iraq, or looking at Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant in great detail. This is because the places that the satellites have viewed in detail are those that the US has a military interest in.
This level of detail has caused some debate over privacy - after all, you might not want everyone in the world to be able to look in your back garden, and the Australian nuclear power organisations have expressed concern that images of their installations could aid terrorists.
Google Earth isn't yet the 'killer app' some think it is. But in a few years time, when the ultra-high resolution military images become commonplace, it may well be. By then though, they probably won't have a free version any more.