It might be hard to believe, but the Google Maps we know and love launched 10 years ago today. Before Android, Chrome, Google Plus, Youtube, and most of the other services that make up the core of the Google experience, we had Maps. And while it might be saying too much to argue that Maps led the way to Google's recent successes, it is certainly under-appreciated for its role.

The Beginning

Google Maps wasn't the first online map service. It also didn't obviously relate to Google's claim to fame: search. It's important to remember that by 2005, Google was no start-up anymore. They were already the number one search engine and were traded on the stock market. MapQuest had an 8 year head start on web mapping. For Google to offer a map service, they had to have foresight, something we shouldn't overlook.

Now, map results are considered a standard offering for a search engine. Maps now also double as a way to locate businesses, something that used to occur separately from the atlas; remember the Yellow Pages? It also makes perfect sense, with the gift of hindsight, to see how mapping relates to Google's mission. They have risen to great success by indexing cyberspace. Why not physical space?

Maps is also an early result of the company turning acquisitions into core Google-branded services. In October 2004, they bought mapping company Where 2 Technology, which is credited with being the move that most directly led to Maps. Soon thereafter, they acquired Keyhole, which specialized in 3D and likely helped the subsequent launch of Google Earth. Finally, they grabbed ZipDash, a traffic-tracking service that was already live on the web.

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And, since ZipDash was already on mobile devices, their technology may have led to Google's unparalleled smartphone offerings.

Maps Hits Mobile

Google Maps for Mobile debuted on a few handsets in 2006, on the eve of the smartphone wave to hit in late 2007/early 2008. It brought the main thing that people dreamed of having in their cell phones: turn-by-turn directions. Being able to summon directions on the spot, no matter how much better a local's route may be, opened up all kinds of doors for end users. If you have an Android phone today, being "lost" doesn't really register with you. Thank mobile mapping for that!

I'd be remiss not to acknowledge the first big platform to carry Google-powered maps: iOS. Apple leaned on Google to power their first smartphone's GPS software and they were smart to do so. Although the pairing eventually fell apart, it was a very mutually beneficial relationship.

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Screenshot from The Verge.

Of course, it wasn't long before Google Maps became an integral part of the Android ecosystem. And it wasn't just a port of the Apple offering; it brought with it a true navigation interface, an early differentiating feature for the young Android platform.

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Maps on the HTC G1 and Motorola Droid (left image originally from SmartphoneMag.com)

Its cross-platform, cross-form factor ubiquity helped lead Maps to its reputation as the absolute best. Over 1 billion downloads later, Google Maps is as much identified by its mobile presence as it is in its web form.

Today

At this point, Google is undisputed king of maps. But it's more than that. Back in 2003, Android co-founder Andy Rubin remarked, "…there [is] tremendous potential in developing smarter mobile devices that are more aware of its owner's location." Does that ring any bells for you?

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Google has in certain ways staked its mobile future in Now. And what is Google Now without Maps? So much of the magic in the service is based on Google's excellence when it comes to location services. Without their well-developed map infrastructure, they never could have brought something like this to market. Google Now would just be Siri.

From Google Now on Android sprang another new venue for Rubin's vision: Wear. It solves the basic problem of Google Now, which is that it has to balance obtrusiveness with redundancy. What is a watch, if not innocently redundant?

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This all just scratches the surface of the feature richness and influence of Google Maps over the years. If the past is any indication, the future looks bright.