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The crazy story of how Google Maps’ Satellite view was almost called Bird Mode

Published Feb 25th, 2019 7:06PM EST
Google Maps satellite view
Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

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Practically anyone who works in an office setting and has to answer to layers of management can sympathize with a certain kind of bureaucracy. The kind where good ideas have to confront the harsh light of middle- and upper-management review, where executives hearing an idea for the first time that had been the product of much study and review practically bat it away by suggesting something cringeworthy — or at the very least eye roll-inducing.

That’s exactly the position that Google Maps co-creator Bret Taylor found himself in one day back in 2005, according to a series of tweets in which Bret recounts the interesting and quasi-comedic deliberations that led to the naming of Google Maps’ integrated satellite imagery feature. As explained by Bret, who’s also worked as Facebook’s chief technology officer, what we know as Satellite View was close to being dubbed something entirely different, thanks to a baffling executive pronouncement.

Let’s set the stage. In those days, Google’s top executives convened a weekly product review meeting. Google Maps had launched in February, and this new satellite feature was ready to launch by the summer. So — time for a launch review. A review that came just in time to settle a disagreement.

Turns out, as Bret explains, there was a “geeky holy war” on the Maps team. This new feature was already on the road toward being called “Satellite” mode, until the team was informed that a “significant” percentage of the images were taken from, whoops, airplanes. Satellite, in other words, would have been a “factually incorrect name.”

You can guess what happened next.

As Bret tells it, the launch review meeting devolved from a kind of standard review into “every Google executive and their mother naming the feature on our behalf.” Compound all the ideas being thrown around with this additional wrinkle — Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had installed a countdown clock, so that once the thing finished and finally buzzed, that’s it. Meeting adjourned. Decisions, final.

Run that meeting in your mind, if you will. The clock is ticking down. Everyone is bandying names around like “Airplane View,” “Superman” and the very Google-y “I feel Picture-y.” Per Bret’s series of tweets, he thinks it was Sergey who spoke last. “Let’s call it Bird Mode.”

And then — Bzzzzz. Time’s up. The clock buzzes, and that’s it. “I look around, and it’s clearly evident the feature has officially been named ‘Bird Mode’ in the most insane way possible,” Bret continues.

What happened next is really the perfect cap on this story. “We spend the next few days freaking out,” Bret tweets. “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?”

Answer: The team decided to do — absolutely nothing. And just proceed with calling it “Satellite” mode like some of them wanted all along. Bret cheekily describes this as the team’s “pocket veto” of the new feature’s name, which is definitely a funny story to think about next time you’re using the-thing-almost-called-Bird-Mode in Google Maps.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.