Home Google Gives Up Control of Keyhole Markup Language (KML)

Google Gives Up Control of Keyhole Markup Language (KML)

Google announced today that mapping markup language KML has been accepted by and will be given to the Open Geospatial Consortium, an international mapping standards body. KML will now be known as OpenGIS® KML Encoding Standard (OGC KML), opening up what should be an explosive new era in online mapping.

The announcement wasn’t a surprise. KML was already in use for map overlays by Microsoft Live and Yahoo! Maps. None the less, this could end up being an important event in the unfolding history of the web. Here’s some of the big takeaways we see in the announcement today.

Standards and Innovation

Standards in any field can increase innovation by orders of magnitude. Standards mean that an invention that works one place can be used anywhere that supports that standard. They enable economies of scale, lower the obstacles faced by new and small innovators and are just generally a very good thing. They’re hard to pound out in committee but when it comes to infrastructure that benefits everyone, little else is as important as standards work. For something as boring and painful as it is – standards work is very sexy.

Now that KML is an accepted open standard, not controlled by any single private company, there’s all the more reason for any organization to publish its geographic data in KML. The standards body’s takeover of KML means that “everyone has confidence we won’t take advantage of the format or change it in a way that will harm anyone,” Google KML Project Manager Michael Weiss-Malik told CNet this morning. “Governments [for example, will] like to say they can publish to OGC KML instead of Google KML,” he said.

Ask yourself how many organizations you can think of that you’d like to see publishing Google Earth or Maps overlays. Now ask yourself how many of them you’d have advised to do so in KML before today. For me at least, the format’s desirability just took a huge leap for the better. I’d like to see KML maps published by: the land trust where a new friend I had dinner with last week works, my local bicycle authority’s city-wide bike route map (already available, actually, because Portland, Oregon is a city full of map heads) or local natural foods stores and CSAs. If you’re not into things like that, I’m sure there’s no end of carcinogenic, exploitive things you can imagine being mapped in a non-proprietary format, too. 🙂

From Startup Acquired to Open Standard

It’s pretty remarkable that Keyhole, the company acquired by and later renamed Google Earth, went from being a startup acquired by Google to now being the foundation for some IP that’s so ubiquitous the company is giving it up to a standards body. Keyhole couldn’t have been cheap, either, having acquired substantial venture capital before the acquisition.

Can you imagine the work of more recent Google acquisitions becoming so central to the company’s work today? So supported long term that it matured to this stage? It’s very hard to imagine; today Google appears to be the place startup founders go to cash out, work on other projects and watch their original technology wither up unsupported.

Making The Pie Higher or Elbowing for Control After All?

On face it appears that the opening of KML is a move intended to help the whole mapping world grow, with the assumption that market leader Google will only benefit from this overall growth of the sector. That kind of move is always inspiring to see, but some in the mapping world think this announcement may be a little more complex.

“The initial reaction by some in the geospatial community,” Andres Ferrate of Cartosoft told us,

“is that this is an attempt by Google to impose its will on geospatial standards with a format that was not originally intended for mass consumption. In the end, regardless of whether KML is a formal standard or not, its true value remains to be seen in terms of its adoption and use in geospatial applications other than Google Earth and Google Maps. Other software providers such as Microsoft and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a major provider of GIS software, already offer support for KML in some of their solutions.”

There are always critics; their criticism, however valid, may not withstand the market forces unleashed by even inferior standards, though. We hope that KML’s becoming an open standard will serve well both today’s ecosystem of cartographic entrepreneurs and an unknown future of map publishers. Ultimately, standards should bode well for end users, too.

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