Still More Fun with Maps

Well, that was certainly an unexpected flood of responses. Apparently I wasn’t the only one that found Google Maps interesting &emdash; I was amazed at some of the creative hacks that some commentors created. After sifting through this deluge, I decided to summarize some of the findings, clarify a few points, and add a few other comments on implementation details. This is kind of a grab bag of points, so please bear with me.

Cut Google some slack on Safari

I noticed a lot of people complaining both here and on Slashdot about the lack of Safari support. And I’m not completely unsympathetic, as I’m running a shiny new Mac Mini at home that I love. However, as anyone can attest that has ever tried to build an even remotely complex web application, it just ain’t easy. And please don’t blather on about who implements ‘web standards’ better &emdash; no one really implements them, and even if they did, you’d still be outta-luck if you wanted to do anything interesting in DHTML.

If you take some time to dig through Google’s Javascript, you’ll find that there is proto-Safari support all over the place. They’re clearly working on it, and you really can’t ask for much more than that.

The route overlay

There’s one really interesting facet of the route display that I totally failed to notice the first time around &emdash; I was doing everything in Mozilla and simply didn’t notice that they were actually using Microsoft’s VML to render the route on IE. It may be non-standard, but you have to admit that it’s very fast and effective! And switching off between client-side and server-side rendering in one code base is a pretty cool hack.

Decoding polylines and levels

Also because I only noticed the server-side route rendering the first time around, I failed to check whether the route’s polylines were being decoded on the client. Well, as several commentors pointed out, they are. In fact, the decoding loop is fairly simple (just have a look at decodePolyline() for the details). I originally assumed this stream was encoded so that you could just grab it and send it back to the server for rendering (thus making the image server stateless, and the rendered route cacheable). However, since they’re decoded on the client, it appears that it also served the purpose of keeping the size reasonable &emdash; encoding all those points as XML would get pretty fat.

I also glossed over the fact that there’s another stream associated with the route called ‘levels’. This is an interesting trick that allowed them to encode the route points at different zoom levels in the same stream (because there’s really no opportunity to easily go back to the server for a new route when you change zoom levels &emdash; when you’re rendering on the client).

Flow of control for form submit and IFrame

Although it’s something of a wacky implementation detail, it’s interesting to note how the search form at the top of the application works. It is actually contained in a FORM element, although it has three separate DIVs whose visibilities are swapped as you click on the different search links. However, it can’t be submitted directly, as that would cause the entire application to reload. Instead, the event handler for the form’s submit button suppresses the reload, gathers the search parameters, and calls the application’s search() method. This method builds a query URL and sets a hidden IFrame’s ‘src’ parameter, which causes it to gather a new chunk of XML from the server.

As I believe I mentioned in the previous article, requesting the XML via this IFrame has the additional benefit that it ties the browser’s history perfectly to the application’s state. Although it would be nice if someone would fix Mozilla such that the history titles are correct (this works properly in IE).


It turns out that Google Maps communicates with the server both through the hidden IFrame and the XMLHttpRequest object. I mentioned in the last article that it transforms the downloaded XML using XSL. Well, that XSL is not actually hard-coded into the application. Instead, whenever it needs to perform a transform, it requests the XSL via XMLHttpRequest, performs the transform, and caches the XSL itself so that it won’t need to download it again.

Permalink and feedback

One of the potential downsides to building an application that runs entirely within a single page is that the address bar never changes, so it’s not possible for the user to create links to the application’s current state. Of course, many ‘normal’ web applications don’t really work properly when you try to link to their internal pages, but people have still come to expect it to work most of the time.

Google’s solution to this problem was to create the ‘link to this page’ anchor in the right panel. When you click on it, it refreshes the entire application with a URL that encodes the entire application state. Pretty nifty, as it gives you the important parts of the behavior everyone likes to call ‘REST’ without having to break the application up into a million little pieces.

You may have noticed that the ‘feedback’ link also encodes the application’s state. The map application actually updates the hrefs of both of the stateful links every time the application state changes.


Often you can tell quite a bit from code that is left lying around unexecuted. In this case, it appears that the Google Maps team may have had performance problems in some methods (or may simply have been trying to head them off). You can tell this because there are some prologue/epilogue functions being called in various methods that definitely smell like a hand-rolled profiler. And if you look at the list of methods that contain these hooks, it definitely makes sense:


If this is indeed the case, I think it’s worth noting that Mozilla’s profiler actually does a reasonably good job. And although performance on one browser is not perfectly indicative of performance on the others, the Mozilla results have been roughly indicative of results on IE in my experience.

Tiles & longitude/latitude mapping

The mapping of tiles to longitude/latitude pairs is relatively straightforward. The code for doing transformations in both directions can be found in the functions getBitmapCoordinate(), getTileCoordinate(), and getLatLng(), and several commentors have picked apart the transforms in more detail. As mentioned before, the tiles’ image source URLs encode the longitude, latitude, and zoom level.

Several commentors also suggested that the entire map was pre-rendered at every zoom level, so that the web server could simply deliver the tiles without further consideration. While I believe this is partially true, I also am fairly certain that some areas will be viewed far more often than others. Clearly, Google is working from vector data at some level, and it would probably make far more sense to render tiles on the fly and caching them. This would also make a big difference when it came to dealing with updates to the vector data, especially if those updates could be localized such that the entire tile cache need not be invalidated.

Crazy ‘bookmarklet’

Finally, I have to give kudos to those who’ve been working on the ‘bookmarklet’ that reaches into the running application and makes it dance. It’s completely novel to me that you can add bookmarks of the form ‘javascript:’ and have them run in the context of the current page. It makes perfect sense, of course &emdash; I just never thought of it. It appears that the current state of the art of this hack can be found here.

The only unfortunate part about this (through no fault of the authors’) is that it’s likely to be brittle in the face of updates to Google Maps &emdash; the Javascript has to reach into global variables within the running application, which will probably change when Google’s code obfuscator is run. It does give us a glimpse of a possible future, however, when even web pages publish public API’s for developers to use. Very interesting!

Note: I'm moving to G+ comments, but also want to preserve the old blog comments in read-only form. I just haven't gotten around to that last part yet, so they're temporarily unavailable.