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Here’s a silly Google Maps origin story about how “Satellite” was almost named “Bird Mode”
184 replies and sub-replies as of Feb 24 2019

In 2005, Google’s exec team (Larry, Sergey, etc) had a weekly product review meeting. We had launched Google Maps in February, and by summer, we’d integrated satellite imagery from our Keyhole (aka Google Earth) acquisition and were ready to launch — so we set up a launch review.
There was a geeky holy war on the Maps team. When Lars checked in the code to switch between maps and imagery, he called it “Satellite.” We were quickly informed that a significant % of the images were taken from airplanes — “Aerial Photography.” Our name was factually incorrect.
Being the product pragmatist I am, I thought, who cares? “Aerial Photography” doesn’t fit on a button, and every person in our usability study got what “Satellite” meant. Unfortunately, to the Keyhole GIS engineers, we were basically destroying humanity with our lies.
I could not resolve the disagreement before our launch review, so we come into the meeting room with an unnamed feature. As you might expect, the meeting devolved from a “launch review” to every Google exec and their mother naming the feature on our behalf. 🙄
Now, these exec reviews were Larry and Sergey’s favorite place to experiment with crazy meeting ideas (kind of fun, actually). I had attended one review where one founder spent the entire meeting on an elliptical machine. Their new experiment was a huge countdown clock.
The rule was: the review had to end on time. When the clock ticked zero, the buzzer would buzz, and like an NBA game, the meeting was over and decisions final. So here we are, throwing out names like “Airplane View,” “Superman,” “I Feel Picture-y,” and this clock is ticking down
I think it was Sergey who spoke last. “Let’s call it Bird Mode.” Bzzzzzzzz. I start to speak and am cut off — meeting over. I look around, and it’s clearly evident the feature has officially been named “Bird Mode” in the most insane way possible.
We spend the next few days freaking out. We knew the feature was going to be huge, and now it had this name that everyone on both sides of the Satellite-vs-Aerial-Photography war agreed was silly and horrible. But it was *decided*. So what do we do?
It turns out, when you write the code, you have a fair amount of power. 😏 We pocket vetoed the decision and launched with “Satellite.” And literally no exec noticed or remembered our review. And we have been deceiving people with our not-really-satellite imagery ever since.
Simply “Aerial” would have worked and fitted ;-)
I think we jinx'd each other!
Agreed. I actually believed it was all satellite until I read this.
"Aerial" is shorter than "Satellite" and as easily understood. For your argument to hold weight instead of be a strawman, you have to compare "Satellite Photography" with "Aerial Photography."
You would have fit right in
Dang it! I fell for it!
You're probably right about Satellite view. Aerial view seems to be about perspective:
Aerial view of Istanbul from a Zeppelin, 1918 (from Wikipedia)
Satellite view also just sounds cooler.. Planes aren't cool, want to know what's cool? Satellites! :)
I would be confused by aerial. (I’d be annoyed by thinking about antennas/antennae) Aerial photography is fine but long. Satellite works without photography.
Haha. Code never lies. But bird mode would be a lie as well, no?
Well, bird is slang for an airplane, too.
Code never lies, but apparently weak project managers do.
13 years later, Sergey finally got his revenge. Having had Bird Mode taken away from him, he planted the seed for Lime mode.
#Brandendorsement Are you an investor, by any chance? 😏
cc @carolanncan for your love of product reviews ;)
“It turns out, when you write the code, you have a fair amount of power.” Is an all time statement.
It should be your Twitter bio
Ah, the value-add of an executive bored with meetings and inventing ways to be entertained. I remember that elliptical, it seemed profoundly disrespectful to the employees in meetings with them.
When we used imagery fr different satellites to look at things (during the first Gulf War) we referred to them as “overhead imagery”. It was a combination of imagery fr satellites, as well as, recon aircraft. In looking at Google data, it is obvious what is sat & what is aerial.
You're not an average user, then.
Code Wins Arguments.
Great story! Also matches my experience - naming things is the one area where *everyone* thinks they’re an expert. 🙂
Naming takes no talent or effort to do badly. At least with design or photography there is a tiny enough learning curve to be able to do it all that people don't think they already know how to do it better.
Design often as well. Because everyone has some form of “taste”.
In taking the lower ground for you, Sergey got you the compromise that should have been attained in the first place. Classic case of an out-of-fringe element expanding the core. 💪
"There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things."
this is why companies hire big firms to name things, or a better route they hire my homey @kylebc
Totally. Everyone is an expert on sales and marketing. Why? Because we all buy stuff. QED.
Well it's not that. Its actually because we have been selling ourselves all or lives in different ways n forms so we become experts in marketing as well as sales. Sales comes naturally to us so does marketing
OH in a meeting from a marketing executive to an engineering leader: "that's a fine marketing opinion. When is your next engineering meeting that I can derail with semi-informed code opinions unsupported by data?" Uncomfortable pause. (continues) "what is your stance on tabs?"
Our Hero??? OverHead??? Or what?°
GIS engineers have been staring at that for years like...
So, now we know how much those product review meetings matter 😂 Great story though!
This could have been a scene straight out of HBO’s Silicon Valley.
OMGUH™️. & NOW I—A BLOGGER WHO STARTED ON BLOGGER & BEGAN UTILIZING FLICKR FOR PHOTOGRAPHY—AM NOW WHAT I CALL A 🎶♾SOCIALMEDIAARTIST👁‍🗨 from the blue screen of death to the iPhone home screen: # Best, JillWrites: BA, MA, MFAW 40something Adult Child of Career IT/Net Exec👶
it turns out that bird mode is actually a way better name
‘Bird’s Eye’ is short, descriptive and commonly understood.
One of the most Google stories I’ve ever heard. They who have the pen have the power. ✨
I like Bird Mode
And this is why I quit Google!
Now I want Bird mode
Jokes on you 😂 Both Superman and Bird Mode are fantastic names and u should've used one of those 🦉
I thought bird mode would involve trash talking basketball.
I was the note taker for that Bird Mode review! One of my favorite Google meeting memories.
Could be worse. Could have called it God Mode. That would have probably resulted in rampages and bloodbaths.
Wise decision since satellite is also way easier to localize to different languages – an aspect which I think should be thought of much more. Bird view would have been Vogelperspektive in German.
Cc @lexa_faye - podcast episode?
Perfect for an episode! These are the moments that product people never forget, the decisions that define products and more so the way users experience game changing functionality. Can’t wait to get these experiences on the record 😉
Maybe @btaylor can be a guest once we get rolling
(Whispers: you were right. Who cares if satellite is not technically all satellite images.)
So the closeups that show up on Satellite view are not from satellites?
Didn’t Bing Maps call it “Birds Eye”? Although their satellitte imagry was not directly top down like Google’s. Instead it was a ~45 degree angle between the ground and it’s perpendicular.
Exactly..: 👇🏾👇🏾👇🏾
You're probably right about Satellite view. Aerial view seems to be about perspective:
David Wright on Twitter
“Aerial view of Istanbul from a Zeppelin, 1918 (from Wikipedia)”
That is a shame. I would have loved Bird Mode. I'm going to uninstall Maps now. Bye bye.
Did anybody try to break the stalemate with “map mode” vs “photo mode”? Sat photos and aerial photos are all photos, AFAICT.
wow and there was I a kid wondering how cool was that satellite that could picture my house from that distance. This is the "Santa is not real" for me. just wow. #everybodylies
Done this -- ignore the stupid idea, do the right one -- many, many times even in just design. Don't bring up the issue and 99% of the time your can just sneak it in. No one remembers, no one checks any decisions.
The Big Question: Who decides what is “stupid” and what is “the right thing to do”? Does morality play a part in this? Or just whimsy of the decision-maker?
As in the thread: data. Not just some heuristic guidance, but actual user research on the product. Whimsy of the management should be fought against.
More than once I've blown off /illegal/ directives from management when they won't listen. That one seems easy to defend. Ethical isn't far behind. Then embarrassing if publicly revealed, etc.
🖕... Bird mode fer sure !
It's so true, I've been involved in many a quiet coup involving "forgetting" weird decisions
Am I crazy, or wouldn't 'Aerial' fit in a button better than 'Satellite'? And I'd think people would understand that just as well.
You're probably right about Satellite view. Aerial view seems to be about perspective:
David Wright on Twitter
“Aerial view of Istanbul from a Zeppelin, 1918 (from Wikipedia)”
That's the most 'only at Google' thing ever
I've experienced similar things at both Google and Microsoft. We developers know how the code actually works to a scary degree. Usually these things are decided by laziness - shorter descriptions, shorter CLs, etc. It's one useful optimization strategy.
Everytime I select the view, I grumble and think to myself, "Nope."
This is why product design needs more copywriters.
I hope you understand that some class action lawyer is going to sue GOOG for this. 😂
It definitely does continue to mis-educate people. Have to constantly tell people that what they think of as "satellite imagery" has nothing to do with satellites.
Why not just label it Imagery? Shorter and inclusive.
lol this is great. how is google so evil with cool dudes like you working there...
Orthographic... Factually correct as long as the camera is pointing down. And short enough? But too late now I guess.
(How can you be sure this wasn't Sergey's plan all along?)
if you don't want execs to shit on something, just don't tell them about it :)
You must think you've told a funny story, but every aspect of it makes me cringe. Useless meetings, arbitrary choices, cutting off acquired teams from key decisions, thinking you're worth something when you're just a cog in this machine called turbocapitalism...
Sergey was right. Bird mode would have been better.
Sounds like it was a King Solomon moment.
Ever thought that Sergey came up with the ridiculous name just so the argument would stop and he was fine with satellite (hence not saying anything about it, or “not noticing” it)
Such an awesome story; thanks for sharing!
(Possibly sensitive)
He/she who initiates the code drop makes the rules. :-)
How long do you think until “Bird Mode” become “Live Bird Mode”?
What you needed was an expert in bird law.
OR was Sergey purposely waiting til the last minute to suggest a really bad idea so that the two divided parties come to an agreement? Sounds like the kind of management technique King Solomon had used (1 Kings 3:23-27)
Microsoft actually called their aerial imagery version "Bird's Eye View".
trying your employees patience and making decisions without being thoughtful enough that your employees ignore them because of its inanity - "kind of fun"
My god, Larry and Sergey just went down 60 notches on a scale I didn't know I had.
You follow Bollywood too? That’s Anushka Sharma!
Its interesting @btaylor, u used a Indian actress @AnushkaSharma's GIF motif😊👍 Btw very interesting insight to @googlemaps and also a product development life! Why dont you write a book??
To be fair, it does cause a very large amount of people to be misinformed
this is rich coming from a company named after spy satellites
Considering that as a result tens of thousands of people are now under the completely wrong impression when it comes to the capabilities of satellite imaging, I can’t really say they were wrong.
As a people with GIS background myself, I can relate.
As a former GIS analyst this makes me lol
I both loathe and dearly miss those days of the goog, from a consumer standpoint
Sergey once told us to come back [to exec review] once our project was more useful to him than his toothbrush which could dispense toothpaste automatically.
which resulted in an earnest, heated discussion on how to quantify a given toothbrush's usefulness
That’s such a great story .. Totally relate to this during my product days ... Veto is the best way to go :)
I would have liked bird mode. 🐦
That's how Bing Maps calls it and to this day
probably going to have to revert to bird mode when satellite mode actually exists. the name would have been great for word of mouth though.
So Bing Maps name then?
Heh! I remember when it launched thinking "Satellite" isn't technically accurate when it was clear that a lot of the photos were from planes 😜
However, as a UI designer at the time with an undergrad in cartography and remote sensing, "Satellite" never bothered me. Anything else woulda been a pain to try explaining to users
Birds eye view wouldn’t be terrible! Haha I knew you’d appreciate this thread
Microsoft ended up going with something like Birdseye, I think
And, yes, thanks for showing me this thread!
That was some sort of 45 degree imagery they were calling Birdseye, as far as I recall.
Because implying that birds took the photos is so much more honest :-) I guess this was a missed opportunity to be really honest by calling it Surveillance Mode.
And maybe fuelled the impression that satellite photo tech was better than it is, even the commerical end
Bird Mode!
It was Sergey who suggested that, not Larry.
You sure? The PM on the project that was in that meeting told me this story in a panic and said Larry.
Decisions by committee, against the clock? The meeting struggle is real😂
“Flying” in “Bird Mode” would be a cool feature.
friendfeed + tornado, bret+paul (happy memories)
I suppose “Looking Down on You Peasants” was too long (even if it’s aptness rating was off the chizzle)
Enhanced probably would work
It might of sounded silly at the time, but people would have gotten used to it & most likely would have become a catch phrase. For example, people don't think its silly to say "Google it" instead of "Search it"
thank you for sharing. love the story. another way of differentiating between three key tenants of the existence of a company. who has: #ownership #possession #control it matters.
neither tenets, nor tenants quite fits here imo. This message brought to you by the International Society Against Word Conflation.
vocab words is hard. english is my second language. your welcome. #savage world
Like we learned from “Office Space”, always treat your programmers well!
Google Maps is my favorite Google product. It’s the only art & adventure centric product in a sea of utilities.
Why isn't some variation on 'photo' good enough? They are clearly photos.
😂😳 I've been conned l these years! I want a refund...
"pocket vetoed" I like that.
i thought a bird mode would be good
And yet you’ve joined, pushing others also to join, the group of morons that thinks Tomato is a vegetable iso a fruit. If it is not Satellite, Bird View would have been catchy and technically more correct.. sad story actually.
As a relevant corporate group, part of the daily life of almost human being accessing internet daily, you also have a moral duty to educate. Misleading masses does not seem that ‘hilarious’ to us.
Awesome story Bret!
Was "aerial" mode even a consideration if you could walk down the memory lane?
anyone else think this thread was about the dmb song for a minute
Bird mode would have been infinitely cooler though
Disappointed you did not mention this precedent when this feature appeared in Quip on 2016-04-01
12 March 2016,Li Zirui, a six-year-old boy, was killed by Deng Lili of Chenzhou Hospital in Hunan Province, China, in violation of medical taboos. write false medical records so that the child can leave the hospital after his death to continue his treatment.
Almost feels like the three eyed raven getting all the birds eye views :P
Bird would been great. I mean, it's the word
Did anyone suggest “High” mode? I can’t think of any possible disadvantage that might have, whatsoever.
Did you try Sky-Eye?
Bird mode? Prefer Eagle Eye instead....LOL
Well Bing Maps had "Bird's Eye" view
Why not orthophoto?
I mean, “Bird Eye View” is pretty much what you were looking for but you do you
Lots of people do describe them as satellite images so the name is causing confusion.
I’m in camp aerial!