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Beginning Google Maps Applications with PHP and Ajax 105

Michael J. Ross writes "Just as PHP and other Web scripting languages have made it possible to create dynamic Web pages, online mapping services are making it possible to create dynamic maps that can be customized by a Web site owner, or made customizable by a site visitor. In the case of Google Maps, this is done using the built-in application programming interface (API), which is described in a new book, Beginning Google Maps Applications with PHP and Ajax: From Novice to Professional." Read on for the rest of Michael's review.
Beginning Google Maps Applications with PHP and Ajax
author Michael Purvis, Jeffrey Sambells, and Cameron Turner
pages 384
publisher Apress
rating 8
reviewer Michael J. Ross
ISBN 1590597079
summary How to use the Google Maps API to make dynamic online maps.

But first, a brief background: During the mid-1990s, the only generally available mapping applications were desktop programs with location data limited to major cities within the United States. Yet less than one decade later, those programs were obsolete, replaced by Web-based mapping services such as MapBlast, MapQuest, and Yahoo Maps. In early 2005, Google raised the bar, with its own Web-based mapping service that was far more attractive than the others. For countless Internet users, it was their first glimpse of the power of AJAX, a new combination of technologies that allows Web pages to be refreshed asynchronously, providing a faster user interface. But Google Maps later packed another feature, an API that allows Web developers to leverage the service's capabilities in previously unimagined ways.

The authors of Beginning Google Maps Applications with PHP and Ajax — Michael Purvis, Jeffrey Sambells, and Cameron Turner — are based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. The book was published in August of 2006, by Apress, under the ISBN of 1590597079. The publisher maintains a Web page devoted to the title, where visitors can find an online table of contents, a sample chapter (Chapter 3, "Interacting with the User and the Server") as a PDF file, and a link for submitting errata (none of which, as of this writing, appear to have been reported — assuming there are any). In addition, the authors have a Web site for the book, where they offer a sample chapter (Chapter 4, "Geocoding Addresses") in PDF format, links to raw data sources, and brief entries describing a variety of related topics, including geocoding services, Google Maps Mobile (GMM), Keyhole Markup Language (KML), and building your own geocoding using Perl.

The book's material is organized into 11 chapters, grouped into three parts. The fourth and final part contains the appendices. The three primary parts can roughly be thought of as presenting the beginning, intermediate, and advanced information. Part 1, "Your First Google Maps," whets the reader's appetite by showing how to easily create some simple maps (discussed below). In addition, it contains a chapter explaining how a Google Maps mashup interacts with the user as well as the server. The final chapter in this part discusses geocoding addresses. Part 2, "Beyond the Basics," explains how to work with third-party data, how to enhance the user interface, how to optimize and scale for large data sets, and finally what possible future directions Google may take with this API. Part 3, "Advanced Map Features and Methods," presents exactly that, covering such topics as creating custom controls and info windows, adding geometric shapes to maps, and getting the most out of geocoding, including how to work with postal codes.

The authors begin Part 1 ("Your First Google Maps") by introducing Google Maps with the two most simple examples possible: Keyhole Markup Language (KML) is an XML-like formatting language that allows one to specify the names, coordinates, and descriptions of one or more locations ("placemarks") in a single file. For anyone who wishes to avoid writing the code themselves, Wayfaring is a Web site that allows one to create and share custom Google Maps by point and click. Even though the introduction to KML is properly brief, instead of only stating that the sample coordinates were discovered manually, the authors should mention at least one simple way to find those coordinates (such as the "Link to this page" link in Satellite view in Google Maps). Nonetheless, it was wise of the authors to use simple examples to get the reader's feet wet as quickly as possible — especially for prospective readers who might skim through the rest of the book and become intimidated by the technical diagrams, JavaScript and PHP code, MySQL queries, XML markup, and mathematical formulas.

There is much to like about this book. The explanations are straightforward, the code is readable, the examples are relevant, and the writing style is approachable. The illustrations, all of which are in black and white, are well-chosen, and not overwhelming in number. In addition to showing the expected results of the sample code, they also provide enough visual incentive to encourage the reader to give the sample code a try, and perhaps develop it further into their own mapping applications.

The book is not too lengthy, clocking in at 384 pages according to the publisher (though, oddly, Amazon.com reports only 350 pages, even though the last page of the appendix reads "358"). The authors resisted the increasingly common temptation to pad the book with superfluous appendices. Instead there are only two. The first explains how and where to find location data, such as addresses and latitude/longitude points. The second appendix presents the details of all of the classes, methods, properties, constants and events defined within the Google Maps API. For some reason the authors mention "objects" instead of properties and events, but I was unable to find any pre-instantiated objects mentioned in that appendix., and I am not sure such are even possible in the API.

Fortunately, the weakest section of the book, its foreword, has the least impact upon the value of the book. It fails to perform the most basic functions of a foreword, such as explaining to prospective readers why they should become actual readers, as well as what the book covers, and how the authors are qualified to provide that coverage. Instead, its author mostly discusses his personal Google Maps Mania site, and even wedges in mention of his appearance on an NPR radio show, which has little to do with the book. He also lists his first five posts to his Mania site, the first of which contains a misspelling, which should have been caught by the book's editors, or at least indicated with a "[sic]." The best part of the foreword is the first few paragraphs, which provide a brief history of Google Maps and the hacking thereof.

Like most if not all of its titles, Apress helpfully starts this book with two versions of the table of contents — the first one serving as a high-level overview, and the second providing far more detail, listing not only sections but subsections. This is a nice touch, and should be employed by all technical publishers. On the other hand, this book does not have a lay-flat binding, which is a shame, as it makes it far more difficult to read the book with both hands free for keyboarding. With the introduction of lay-flat bindings years ago, it is inconceivable to me why it has not been universally adopted, particularly by technical publishers.

Overall, Beginning Google Maps Applications with PHP and Ajax is an excellent introduction to extending the power of Google Maps on the Web, and provides enough detail to both help and entice readers to build their own Google Maps mashups.

Michael J. Ross is a freelance writer, computer consultant, and the editor of the free newsletter of PristinePlanet.com."

You can purchase Beginning Google Maps Applications with PHP and Ajax: From Novice to Professional from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Beginning Google Maps Applications with PHP and Ajax

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  • by rhizome ( 115711 ) on Monday August 28, 2006 @01:42PM (#15995018) Homepage Journal
    There's a whole book for this?

  • by hamfactorial ( 857057 ) on Monday August 28, 2006 @01:53PM (#15995104)
    According to TFR, yes! A friend of mine did a bunch of google maps API stuff to interface with his GPS system. He goes on bike rides around Arizona, saving the path he took. When he gets home, he downloads the GPS coordinates and makes a route which he can display on his webpage with google maps. I'm sure it can be used for far more advanced things. I bet he could make some really crazy stuff if he read this book.
  • WHO cares ? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by unity100 ( 970058 ) on Monday August 28, 2006 @01:55PM (#15995117) Homepage Journal
    There are very small number of people and businesses who are able to put forward such capitals that might dwell on ajax apps, and dependencies on third party sources like google and try to establish a youtubeish, or some other service. (youtube is given as an example to imply a big operation)

    Almost 80% of the web development market is comprised of small businesses or individual investors, who do not care the slightest for ajax widgets, mumbo jumbo or the such when they start an online presence. Their problem is, selling their wares, or services via a secure, easy and clock-like working site.

    Much hype was done around this ajax, yet we as web developers still are not seeing any demands on ajax stuff in contracts. And the ones that there are negligible when proportioned to the whole.

    Im increasingly starting to see this ajax thing as a new "techno trend" that is pumped up and put forth by genius-tech-wizz kids (net celebrities) who did big business with similar things in the past.

    The catch is, market does not need it.
  • by Keebler71 ( 520908 ) on Monday August 28, 2006 @02:31PM (#15995344) Journal
    There's a whole book for this?

    Maybe the first 300 pages or so are simply the search results for "google maps api" [google.com]

  • by elyobelyob ( 844203 ) on Monday August 28, 2006 @02:35PM (#15995378)
    Google maps API is still very much in development with new features coming out all the time. When they switched from v1 to v2, there was a lot of converting to be done to make maps work correctly. This book will be out of date in no time. Can't see the need for it when you have an active mailing list and sites such as mapki available.
  • by zhez ( 906323 ) on Monday August 28, 2006 @03:33PM (#15995752)
    Having read a copy myself, the content is centered around the most commonly asked questions on the newsgroup. It takes the common pitfalls (misunderstanding AJAX, too much data, poor navigation, need for custom controls etc) and works them into a cohesive path that guides the reader forwards.

    Basic maps are indeed simple and are covered in depth in the first 3 chapters, but this book goes on to cover dealing with hundreds of thousands of data points where the plain API chokes before 200.

    Sure, much of this material is available online, but it takes time to find all the bits you need and it takes time to filter out all of the uninformed "answers" and tips. For $23 (Amazon's price) having all this research and experience compiled into a single book should be a no brainer. Surely you charge more than $23/hr for web development? I do. I'm sure it's saved me at least a dozen hours in the last two weeks, so I think it's a fine investment!

    If $23 is too much, they are having a contest to give away a few copies of the book in the next few weeks. Check the companion site at http://googlemapsbook.com/contest [googlemapsbook.com] if you want to try and win.
  • Re:WHO cares ? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mateo_LeFou ( 859634 ) on Monday August 28, 2006 @03:59PM (#15995921) Homepage
    I think you'll see Tons of requests for AJAX as it continues to soak in. I just did a draft page for a new client. Front page had three links -- two of these used AJAX and the other used ye olde http redirect. Took all of 5 seconds for client to say "you'll fix that one so it works like the others, right?"
  • Re:WHO cares ? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cyngus ( 753668 ) on Monday August 28, 2006 @04:23PM (#15996054)
    If you think that AJAX is just some catch-phrase or piece of eye canding, then I think you misunderstand a lot of human interface principals. The Click-Submit-Reload pattern that is required without something like AJAX is very disruptive to the user experience. AJAX can eliminate this cycle to produce a much more fluid experience. AJAX can be over-used or used badly, but when used correctly, is much more than just some cool toy.

To write good code is a worthy challenge, and a source of civilized delight. -- stolen and paraphrased from William Safire