While there may be much hand wringing over copyright rulings and hand waving over cool, forthcoming gadgets like the iPhone, the technology that really makes a difference in our lives is often overlooked. Witness Google Earth.
Whether you're going on a winter vacation, a business trip, or simply want a precise view of where you're headed today, Google Earth's dynamic, satellite-generated view of the planet is the most useful tool to come along in many years. The basic software is free from earth.google.com. It gives you an animated, zoom-in, zoom-out view of the world. Typing in an address, for example, takes you diectly to the spot where you can see adjacent buildings, services, and roads.Zoom out and you'll find nearby recreation facilities, transportation options, and restaurants.
On business trips, I've marked my hotels in Google Earth with pushpins so that my daughter could look at the city and building I was staying in while we talked on the phone. I've used the program to see where rental properties were located (is the agent being truthful about how close it is to the beach?) and what was nearby. Before heading out to a business meeting, I often check Google Earth to see what buildings are close to my destination and to get familar with the environs before I arrive. The program is also a great supplement to those mundane driving directions (what does that cloverleaf really look like?) and I even use it when I'm following a news story (where exactly is that town in Texas everyone's talking about?).
Of course, Google Earth is also fun. There are numerous mash-ups already available that pinpoint great local restaurants, music venues, fishing spots, and even public bathrooms in Manhattan (don't laugh, it's a serious issue!). Goofy example: check the button lurking in Tokyo Bay.
Few technologies work as advertised and even fewer still are truly helpful. Google Earth is a rare exception.
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