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04 April 2007

He who owns the platform….

It is fascinating to watch the evolution of Google in the public consciousness. It is now considered by many, even those who should certainly know better, as a public utility. Of course, it is no such thing – as a private company, it is responsible first to its shareholders (as long as it infringes no laws) and only then – in the name of public relations, not any imposed responsibilities – should it consider other questions of corporate “social responsibility” and related questions which fall under the realm of philosophy

It is thus with grim amusement we note the recent controversy over Google’s choices in datasets populating its Earth imagery application. It is even more ironic that the furor appears to have been sparked by the use of the application by analysts who ought to have better sources at their disposal, but were apparently (surprisingly) unwilling or unable to rely on traditional government imagery product providers – even given the availability of robust support from efforts such as the National Geospatial Agency’s Commercial Imagery Program and embedded support elements throughout the homeland security and consequence management communities.

We have seen the same debates play out at the birth of the commercial imaging industry over everything from shutter control (whether out of legitimate national security concerns or over-hyped privacy debates) to scientific access "rights". At the end of the day, it is sound and fury signifying nothing – the platform is what matters, and he who controls that sensor will continue to be the defining factor.

What we find even more interesting, however, is that Google has changed the traditional view of what that platform actually itself is. Previously, we (and no doubt most of our counterparts) would have assumed that the platform was the sensor (and constellation.) After all, within the Intelligence Community it is generally the owner of the satellite or air-breather itself that has the defining throw-weight in any argument over tasking and dissemination.

Google has radically transformed the commercial imagery field, at least in its popular application. To be sure, GIS systems and finished imagery analysis still occupy their traditional market segments, but the entire market share of what one might consider “mass simple viewing” is essentially owned by the search engine – not the imagery provider. The new balance of power driven by this dynamic no doubt suits the management of the imagery collection systems well. After all, whether air-breathing or space-based, these are fields where technical skillsets predominate in order to tackle difficult technical problems that a generation ago were the sole provence of national government efforts (like many other collection challenges), and Google’s successes in popularizing imagery can only drive new innovation by non-traditional users while the providers focus on core business issues.

There are lessons here for the Intelligence Community on unanticipated higher benefits which occur when the raw material of collection is made available to a wider community, both to the substantive analysts as well as the continued success and relevance of the provider itself.

(Graphic above is of the next generation WORLDVIEW imagery satellite - courtesy of Digitalglobe).

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