Upon arriving home from my visit to the San Francisco Bay Area, I walked into my living room to find my housemate watching CNN report on the hurricane disaster situation. On the CNN set were several large displays side by side. One showed live video footage from a news helicopter. The other, right alongside it, was a live instance of Google Earth.
"Whoah", I thought to myself. The news anchor was using a mouse on his desk to drive Google Earth, setting context for the live video footage from the helicopter and the story being covered. Seeing this was a mindblowing moment for me. After poking around the products section of the Google Earth site, I discovered CNN has also used Google Earth on the air during the Iraq war. Very cool.
I guess the reason I think this is so cool has something to do with challenging the way we traditionally think about building software (or other products, for that matter). When profit is the single most important goal, we become short-sighted. We start thinking about the 80% case. We start cutting features because the lowest common denominator of users doesn't have a powerful enough computer. We spend resources developing ways to monetize a product before it even launches when we should be spending those resources pushing the limits of the technology. We define a market then let our customers tell us what they want rather than realizing we might not know who our customers are and even if we do they might not know what they want.
Google (or in this case, originally Keyhole) built something cool that pushes the limits of technology. Now it's being used by everyone from hobbyists with GPS devices to a wide range of business and government industries. I have no doubt Google will have no problem monetizing this, not to mention the unbelievable free press you get when CNN decides to broadcast your product with your logo all over it to millions of viewers simply because they find it useful (and probably cool too).
Way to go, Google Earth team!