There's been a quiet leadership change at Google Maps

Brian McClendon, one of Google’s most influential executives, was replaced as the head of Google maps several months ago, according to several people with knowledge of the matter.

McClendon, who was Vice President of Google Maps, was replaced by Jen Fitzpatrick, another Google veteran who has been with Google since 1999 and was one of its first female engineers.

The change happened around October of 2014, around the time that Sundar Pichai was promoted to be Google’s product chief, though McClendon’s move appears to be unrelated.

It’s unclear what exactly McClendon is doing at Google now. One person we spoke to said that he is currently “on the bench” and evaluating his options. “Pretty sure he’s on his way out,” the person said.

Another person close to the situation said that McClendon is looking at opportunities to start a new project within Google.

McClendon was described as a “towering figure” within Google. He was an engineering VP at Keyhole, a digital mapping software company that Google acquired in 2004 and which became the basis of Google Earth. Many of the Keyhole technology is also folded into Google maps.

In 2013 McClendon was awarded the United Nations Champions of the Earth award for “harnessing the power of technology to support conservation and green economic development.”

The shake up is a big change for the maps group, one of Google’s most popular products and a vital adjunct to the company’s highly profitable search business. In a 2013 article in The New York Times magazine McClendon said that 20 per cent of search queries on Google are location specific. The ratio is even higher on mobile, he said in another interview.

Maps have become a pivotal battleground in the tech market, with Apple having decided to take Google head-on with its own mapping product a few years ago.

In 2013 Google paid $US1 billion for Waze, an online mapping app that provides crowdsourced traffic information. The co-existence of two separate mapping apps within Google, Google Maps and Waze, makes sense for now, McClendon said to the AllThingsD website shortly after the deal, though he wouldn’t say if that would remain the case in the long term.

There’s also been some speculation that Google’s commitment to the Google Earth product might be waning. A non-Google-affiliated web site called the Google Earth Blog noticed in February that McClendon was no longer at the helm of Maps and Earth group, although it didn’t name his replacement. The author worried that it could bode ill for the future of Google Earth, and noted that Google recently made the Google Earth Pro version of the product free to the public.

“Google Earth is a wonderful product, but it needs to have as many sources of revenue as possible to justify itself to a publicly traded company like Google. Changes late last year to Google My Maps also weakened the tie between Google Maps and Google Earth,” the blog said.

Google declined to comment. We’ve also reached out to McClendon and will update the post if we hear anything back.

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