Google Earth now supports overlays from a variety of content providers which allow users to click on an area of the Earth to see more about the location.
Initial Google Earth content partners include the United Nations Environmental Program, which will provide an overlay including successive time-stamped images illustrating 100 areas of extreme environmental degradation throughout the world. Before-and-after imagery spanning 30 years will be included to offer users an online resource to learn about worldwide environmental crisis zones.
While on the topic of educational overlays -- the Discovery Networks World Tour overlay will enable users to virtually visit major world attractions, natural wonders and cities. It offers streaming video segments in which users may learn about the history of world landmarks, national parks, a number of African locations and American and European cities.
The National Park Service overlay allows users to learn about natural recreation opportunities including detailed park descriptions, visitor facilities information and more than 10,000 miles of trails within the 58 US national parks. The Jane Goodall Institute overlay enables users to visit Fifi and other Gombe preserve chimpanzees to follow their daily routines through a "geo-blog" in Google Earth. The blog is updated daily and captures the work of the Jane Goodall Institute including research on chimpanzees and the effects of deforestation in Africa.
Google continues to blaze new trails in all that it does and significantly it seems they can summon leading content partners at will. Moreover -- despite billions of dollars being invested by Microsoft and Yahoo!, Google's business model becomes more and more difficult to ape (sorry about that Jane).
What is next for this service? I surmise there will be a business angle and a company like Verizon may want its Big Yellow service to be connected to Google Earth so users can also see commercial entities.
Let's say for example you want to go shopping and don't want to deal with the massive lines at Wal-Mart. You jump onto Google Earth and see the Wal-Mart overlay that lets you know that now is a bad time for that shopping trip. You could see the busy parking lot in real-time and perhaps even zoom in on the aisles in the store at some point. You might want to wait for inclement weather to thin out the new shoppers before you make the trip.
This sort of model lends itself well to pay per click or pay per call advertisers. Now I don't suppose this service will be as big as Google's core search business but every bit helps. I also see this sort of service as a perfect way for someone to see all the businesses in an area before planning a trip. For example you may want to see what gyms are near your hotel and perhaps where the nearest Starbucks is located in relation to your favorite fitness club. You will likely eventually be able to walk the streets of your destination before leaving home.
VoIP will be a likely way for the pay per call transactions to take place so chalk one up for the power of IP communications to enable new and innovative business models.
When you think about it though, Google may not want to share revenue with Big Yellow and could if it decides to map the world's businesses as an overlay so it can take all the money for itself. As many Google competitors are learning, regardless of how much they spend to take the search giant on, the world seems to be more and more like Google's Earth every day.