I still remember the first time I saw Google Earth–back when it was known as Keyhole Earth viewer and wasn’t yet owned by Google–and how its intensely graphical virtual portal to the real world’s geographic richness knocked my socks off. Last week, Google gave me a sneak peek at Google Earth for iPhone and iPod Touch, which is live in the iPhone App Store in Australia now and due in the U.S. store soon And once again, I was dazzled.
The iPhone version of Google Earth is dazzling because…well, because it feels just like Google Earth, but it’s also very much an iPhone app. It begins with the same big-blue-marble view of the earth; enter any location, and you can fly there via smooth animation and high-resolution satellite imagery. Once you’ve landed somewhere, you can pan around, zoom in and out, and click on Wikipedia and Panaramio icons to read articles and see photos relating to local landmarks. In the hands-on time I got at Google’s offices, at least, everything was remarkably fluid and fast, just as with deskbound versions of Google Earth.
Desktop versions of the application include a driving-directions feature; the iPhone edition uses GPS to identify your location and lets you do local searching (say, to find pizza places in Naples) but doesn’t do directions. It’s possible to click from a location in Google Earth over to the iPhone’s Maps app reasonably seamlessly, but returning to Google Earth isn’t so smooth–the app has to relaunch. This isn’t really a massive defect, though, since it makes more sense to get your driving directions in Maps in the first place.
This version of Google Earth is missing a fair amount of the desktop edition’s other functionality, too, such as 3D buildings and various mapping tools. (Google says it’ll continue to add new features to future versions; it also says it’s thinking about versions for other mobile platforms, such as–surprise!–its own Android OS.) But Google Earth’s basic user interface is much better on the iPhone than on the desktop versions–and a lot more fun–since it takes full advantage of the iPhone. You can zip around the planet with your fingertip and zoom in and out by pinching; tilt the phone, and Google Earth uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to keep your view level. It’s one of the best apps to date for demonstrating the things that make an iPhone an iPhone.
Google Earth is new to the iPhone, but a $4.99 iPhone app called Earthscape has provided a Google Earth-esque experience for a while now. The real Google Earth trumps Earthscape in several ways–it has much more high-resolution imagery, and a better touch interface. But I do miss one Earthscape feature in Google Earth: The ability to snap photos with the iPhone’s camera and have them show up in the appropriate geographic location in the virtual world. It would be cool if Google Earth for iPhone gained that feature someday.
But Google Earth for iPhone and iPod Touch is pretty darn cool as is–I’d call it an armchair approach to tourism if it weren’t for the fact that you can take it anywhere. And it pretty much goes without saying that it’s free. Herewith, some images (these were created by Google):