As companies with Internet mapping portals such as Yahoo and Google struggle to one-up each other with newer features and easier navigation, satellite imagery companies are taking advantage of that competition and finally seeing a commercial market for their products.
Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo showed its desire to directly compete with Mountain View, Calif.-based Google when the company announced April 11 that it is incorporating satellite imagery into its Yahoo Local beta program. Google began incorporating satellite imagery into its Google Maps program back in 2005.
Yahoo is using both commercial and government imagery for the program, with GeoEye and I-cubed: Information Integration and Imaging LLC of Fort Collins, Colo., providing the commercial imagery, according to Michael Lawless, Yahoo Maps product manger, who responded to questions April 20 via e-mail.
Lawless said Yahoo's goal is to provide coverage within the United States at a resolution of 1 meter. "There are many parts of the U.S. that aren't covered very well on other sites, and we've been able to dig up some of the best coverage available to blanket the entire country," Lawless said. He declined to disclose when the imagery will be transferred out of the beta version and onto the standard one.
Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye also provides imagery to Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft for Microsoft's Virtual Earth and Windows Local programs. The Microsoft deal dates back to June 2005 - before Orbimage Inc. merged with Space Imaging to form GeoEye--and gives Microsoft exclusive access to the OrbView satellites that were owned by Orbimage.
Mark Brender, vice president for communications and marketing for GeoEye, declined to discuss the specifics of the company's new contract with Yahoo, but said in a telephone interview April 19 that the deal involves imagery provided by the Ikonos satellites, formerly owned by Space Imaging.
GeoEye's competitor, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., provides imagery to Google for the Google Maps program.
GeoEye and DigitalGlobe have not disclosed the amount of imagery each has provided to the mapping services, or the amount of revenue each has obtained from these deals. But representatives from both companies cite the contracts as evidence of a growing market for their products.
"In general, before Web-based mapping services and search engines existed, the commercial remote sensing industry barely had a megaphone. But these omnipotent search engines are creating a sonic boom throughout the industry," Brender said. "The search engines are finally bringing satellite imagery down to Earth, and will drive more markets for us."
Ed Jurkevics, an analyst with the firm Chesapeake Analytics of Arlington, Va., said in a phone interview April 20 that the mapping programs have opened up a whole new set of customers for the remote sensing industry.
"They're providing a way to bring in consumer and small business revenues into remote sensing," Jurkevics said. "My projections say they will represent probably the third-largest customer [behind the government and foreign ground stations] in the next couple years."
Neither the mapping engine companies nor the satellite imagery providers would disclose the nature of how their contracts work. In GeoEye's case, Brender said there is a combination of business structures involved.
DigitalGlobe spokesman Chuck Herring said: "We don't discuss the specifics of the Google contract, but essentially they, like any of our customers, pay to get a licensed copy of our imagery and use it for several of their mapping applications."
Leaders in the remote sensing industry have been talking in recent months about shifting their focus to providing imagery and trying to get away from a dependence on government contracts.
During a panel discussion at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 5, DigitalGlobe Chief Executive Officer Jill Smith said the industry has to stop thinking like satellite providers and start thinking as content providers.
"We need to change the way people interact with our imagery," Smith said. "Today, we make it really hard, and we impose a lot of cost and burden for [people] to add imagery to their mapping and monitoring applications."
Jurkevics projected that revenue from imagery for the mapping services probably amounts to around $25 million annually right now. But taking into account the mapping companies' desire to expand their imagery of foreign cities, the competition between providers and a desire from customers for more three-dimensional imagery, he sees the market growing in the next few years to $125 million to $150 million per year.
"But if all of this fails to produce consumer interest, these expenditures won't develop," Jurkevics said.
In the meantime, the companies doing mapping portals are trying to ensure that customers stay interested in these applications. Lawless said Yahoo believes that by having a better mapping product, they can leverage existing money-making strategies, such as taking its business listings and plotting advertisers' locations directly on the maps.
MapQuest, the most frequently visited mapping Web site, incorporated satellite imagery as long ago as March of 2000, according to Dori Salcido, a spokeswoman for America Online, which owns MapQuest. But the company ended up later removing the imagery, citing a drop off in customer interest.
"We had satellite imagery almost before its time," Salcido said. "The consumers weren't embracing it at the time. But now people are certainly coming to the Internet for more things these days and mapping is one of them."
As a result, MapQuest plans to reintroduce satellite imagery into its program in the fall of 2006, though details on which company will provide the imagery and how much will be available are still being worked out, Salcido said.
According to data compiled by comScore Media Metrix, a Reston, Va.-based consulting firm, in terms of unique site visitors, MapQuest led the pack of mapping sites in March 2006, with 46,433 unique visitors. Behind MapQuest were Yahoo Maps, with 19,976 visitors and Google Local with 19,090. MSN's MapPoint program received 1,345 visitors in March, according to the statistics.
Jurkevics said it will be interesting to see whether Yahoo follows in the footsteps of Google and Microsoft and acquires companies that can help them expand their mapping programs. Microsoft, for example, announced its purchase of Colo.-based remote sensing company Vexcel in March.