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Google Earth Pro Is Now Free—But Why?

Google announced earlier this year that it will now be offering Google Earth Pro for free. Google Earth Pro had previously required an annual subscription fee of several hundred dollars, and I have my doubts as to what the elimination of a paid subscription tier means for the future of Google Earth. But, first, let’s explore why this announcement is relevant to land preservation.

Using GIS in Land Preservation

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis is an increasingly important resource for land preservation. Uses can range from simply determining the most efficient way to monitor protected properties to analyzing the special characteristics of a property and even the impact of nearby properties on a property. For example, I previously wrote about how GIS is being used proactively to protect the viewshed around Mount Vernon.

Not all uses of GIS are quite that computationally intensive, of course. Sometimes GIS is useful just to determine where a particular property is located. For example, many localities now make their tax maps available online in web-based GIS applications. The online parcel viewer provided by Dinwiddie County, Virginia (available here) is one of the best implementations of that sort of system that I have seen.

But, for the more computationally intensive tasks, professional GIS analysts use very sophisticated software, such as the software published by ESRI. The problem with this sophisticated GIS software is that it tends to be rather expensive. ESRI’s “ArcGIS for Desktop Basic” software costs $1,500 for a single user, according to ESRI’s website. Granted, even their basic software package contains hundreds of features necessary for sophisticated GIS analysis. And I’m sure that people who spend hours every day using GIS software, who need to manage hundreds of datasets, or who need a higher degree of accuracy than low-cost software can provide derive enough value from the software to justify that sort of price. But some of us in the land preservation community use GIS software more sporadically and have simpler needs. The same applies to individual landowners who might want to understand their property better.

Enter Google Earth.

Google Earth Free vs. Google Earth Pro

I have been using Google Earth for several years to analyze properties for conservation easement donations and miscellaneous other real-estate transactions. The free version of Google Earth itself is pretty amazing. Google Earth can be used to trace approximate property lines (assuming that proper points of reference are visible on the satellite imagery, such as roads, bodies of water, and lines of trees); in other cases, the property lines can be imported from the county’s tax parcel records. This property can then be compared to satellite imagery, topographic maps, and various other datasets to determine the characteristics of the property and nearby properties.

Even so, I pretty quickly convinced myself to pay for Google Earth Pro. Google Earth Pro adds several useful features, such as:

  • Google Earth Pro can be used to calculate acreages. This is an exceedingly useful feature when analyzing properties that do not have a recent survey or that do not have a survey at all.
  • Google Earth Pro can import a greater variety of GIS file types, such as shapefiles. Several government-created GIS datasets are available only as shapefiles or other file types that the free version of Google Earth cannot handle.
  • Google Earth Pro can print satellite imagery at a higher resolution than the free version can.
  • Google Earth Pro also provides access to several datasets that are not available in the free version, although I personally never made much use of these datasets since many of them are focused on urban areas.

More features are listed on the official Google Earth product information page. Even with these additional features, I sometimes find myself longing for more sophisticated software, but overall I have been pretty satisfied with Google Earth Pro.

Is the Demise of Google Earth at Hand?

Then yesterday I received an email from Google officially informing me that Google Earth Pro is now being offered for free. Apparently, Google had publicly announced this back in January.

Google does not appear to have made any public announcements as to why they are no longer charging for Google Earth Pro. On its surface, gaining access to Google Earth Pro’s (comparatively) advanced functionality at no cost would seem to be a good thing, but I am not encouraged. At a minimum, it brings to mind the old adage, “You get what you pay for.” When a company develops a product, charges several hundred dollars a year to use it, and then decides to release the product for free, that strongly suggests that developing that product is no longer a priority. I am not the only blogger with such concerns. (See here and here.)

Google is notorious for developing products and then swiftly killing them off—Google Wave and Google Reader, among others—thus perhaps perfectly embodying Silicon Valley’s famous “fail fast” philosophy. However, Google has become far too dominant with, and has invested too much money in, its various mapping products for it to scuttle Google Earth anytime soon. Perhaps someday Google will merge Google Earth (which is desktop-based) into Google Maps (which is web-based) and no longer offer Google Earth as a separate download.

That is purely speculation on my part, of course. Only time will tell what will happen to Google Earth. But for now? Enjoy your free Google Earth Pro (which you can download here).

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Derrick P. Fellows

Derrick P. Fellows is an attorney with Hawthorne & Hawthorne, P.C. in Victoria, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter at @dpfellows.