SketchUp, a 3D drawing application which Google released Wednesday, is the latest example of a happy, booming software trend: Google or Yahoo buys an innovative small company which makes a for-pay product, and quickly releases a cool free version of its software.
In this case, the innovative company was @Last Software, and SketchUp truly is cool, since it makes the notoriously difficult job of drawing 3D architectural models surprisingly easy. In its Google iteration, it's a complement to Google Earth, one which lets that amazing program's community of fans build and share buildings to be incorporated into its virtual world.
The application comes with bountiful documentation and tutorials, but the user interface is so simple and intuitive that I started to build rudimentary 3D structures even before I'd consulted the help system. I wouldn't want to live in the house below, but it took me about three minutes to put together.
You can have fun with SketchUp without constructing anything from scratch, because it's easy to grab models from Google's 3D Warehouse, a searchable online repository of excellent recreations of lots of real-world landmarks. (You can also upload your creations to the Warehouse.)
This is not a review of SketchUp, since I've only played with a bit so far. But so far I'm impressed. I've fiddled with consumer-oriented 3D drawing programs since about 1988, and SketchUp is about the least intimidating one I've ever seen. Which makes Google an entirely appropriate home for it.
As with Google Earth, by the way, there's still an industrial-strength version of SketchUp aimed at professionals, at an industrial-strength pricetag: US$495. The free version is Windows-only at the moment, but a Mac edition is on the way.