Paper maps obsolesce rapidly from the moment they are printed, because the ink on the paper remains the same while the world changes—though faster in mid-Manhattan than in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Online maps can be updated frequently and some aspects, such as traffic, can reflect changes in real time. However, they rarely contain all the data and functions required to answer complex geographic questions, such as, “How many square miles of corn does the Kansas River watershed contain in Nebraska above 150 meters of elevation?” Using a geographic information system to answer such questions requires substantial training and access to all the right datasets.
By launching Google Earth (GE) a little more than 15 years ago, Google popularized a version of a digital or virtual Earth that requires neither training nor importing datasets to explore the entire planet—though at differing resolutions, roughly directly proportional to the amount of economic activity in each area. However, it allows users to perform only minimal geographic analysis, such as displaying elevation profiles, measuring distances and, with the Pro version, measuring areas.
Building on GE, Google Earth Enterprise (GEE) allows organizations to store and process terabytes of imagery, terrain, and vector data on their own servers, as well as to publish maps securely for their users to view using GE desktop or mobile apps, or through their own application using the Google Maps API. However, Google will stop supporting GEE in March 2017.