June 15, 2006

Google Earth for Linux

Author: Nathan Willis

Following closely on the heels of its Picasa news, Google is offering a beta of Google Earth that -- for the first time -- includes a Linux version of the 3-D mapping and visualization program.

The new release is a beta of Google Earth 4, slated to be the next major revision. The release notes indicate simplifications to the user interface, support for textures on 3-D models, and the addition of new features to Keyhole Markup Language (KML), Google Earth's data exchange format.

For most Linux users, of course, the biggest news is simply the availability of a native Linux client. It was possible before to run previous versions of Google Earth under Wine, but the Google Earth 4 Beta is a native application built on Qt and OpenGL.

The Linux download is a 16MB .bin file, an executable shell script wrapped around a self-extracting installer. System requirements are a 2.6-series kernel, glibc 2.3.5, 512MB of RAM, and an active network connection (necessary because the Google Earth client retrieves its visualization data dynamically from a server).

Google Earth displaying a map. Click to enlarge

By default, Google Earth installs in /usr/local/google-earth/ and creates a symbolic link in /usr/local/bin. The installer claims that it installs .desktop menu entries for GNOME and KDE, but I installed it on three machines, and the menu entry failed to appear in any of them.

The system requirements state that a 3-D capable video card is required; if available Google Earth will use OpenGL to render its graphics, but if not, it will attempt to use software rendering. I tested the software rendering, and though it is quite CPU-hungry, it runs without hang-ups or visual artifacts.

The download is, at least as of now, built for i386 architecture only. I tested Google Earth in 32-bit native Ubuntu 6.06 and it worked flawlessly; on the 64-bit AMD architecture, even in a 32-bit chroot, it crashed on startup every time.

We're humans from Earth

At first, Google Earth may sound like little more than a standalone version of Google Maps, but it is far more. High-resolution map data and 3-D buildings are just two of a host of data layers that users can switch on or off at will. The overlays provided by Google include geographic, political, business, and scientific data -- but outside parties are producing more content than Google itself.

Google Earth displaying 3-D. Click to enlarge

You can find such additional content at the Google-run "Google Earth Community" site and the 3D Warehouse of 3-D models created in SketchUp. A quick search reveals dozens of blogs dedicated to building additional features on top of Google Earth, from dynamic earthquake data to "mashups" with other information sources like Wikipedia.

Much of the third-party information available from the Google Earth community is distributed in the form of KML files. By default Google Earth on Linux does not register with Web browsers to handle the .KML extension, so in order to click on a link and have it open in Google Earth, you have to manually configure your browser's preferences. On the plus side, I downloaded a variety of KML files and could not find a single one that failed to open and display correctly in the Linux client.

I think we're gonna like it here

All in all, Google Earth for Linux is a solid performer. Google deserves accolades for releasing the Linux client for this version simultaneously with the Mac OS X and Windows clients.

Moreover, it is especially nice to see that this application is a native build. Although the Wine-driven Picasa by all reports is a success, and Google contributing to the continuing development of Wine is a bonus, I think that a native app like Google Earth is unquestionably better -- if for no other reason than as a proof case for other software houses debating a similar move.

Hopefully, when Google itself decides to port its recent acquisition SketchUp, it will again follow the native path.

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