A few years ago, the conventional wisdom was that no more innovation was possible in the world of online mapping. After all, didn't MapQuest from Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) AOL own the category?
Of course, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) proved the conventional wisdom wrong when it launched a variety of mapping applications last year. In fact, those map-themed rollouts were key drivers for traffic at the search giant.
Continuing to push innovation, Google purchased @Last Software this week. The company develops a software tool, made for newbies as well as professionals, called SketchUp, which allows for the creation of 3-D designs. You can create a mockup of a building, for example, and then use those images in a high-end computer-aided-design (CAD) product, such as from Autodesk (Nasdaq: ADSK ) .
So, what does any of this have to do with mapping? Well, @Last Software launched a plug-in for Google Earth, which is available both for Windows and Apple's Mac. Imagine that you want to see how a house would look in a certain setting. With the @Last program, you can design that house on a particular map location. This ability would come in handy for someone making a presentation to a developer as well as to someone just looking to build their dream house.
In fact, SketchUp offers a variety of monetization opportunities. Through Google, users have an easy way to advertise for local contractors and materials if they're designing a house using the program. Thinking even bigger, Google itself could use the software to develop navigation systems or even build games -- say, an alternative to a flight simulator. And Google's extensive mindshare in the mapping world affords it the luxury of being able to sell premium versions of SketchUp. Currently, the company sells the software for $500 per user, which looks like an easy way to soak up high-margin revenues.
But one thing is certain: When it comes to online mapping, Google still has the right stuff. And local search is considered the next big area for the major portals, with the key being a competency in mapping. Google has been fairly visionary on this front -- and most importantly, it's making key investments and acquisitions to push as hard as possible.
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Fool contributor Tom Taulli does not own shares of companies mentioned in this article.