In the Free Software world, Marble is the name of "a small interactive globe and geographical atlas" for all platforms (including mobile ones) where the Qt libraries can run. At first sight, Marble may seem one of those pretty, but all-in-all unnecessary software applications we all meet from time to time: why Marble when we already have Google Maps and Google Earth? As it turns out, you may have a lot of reasons to use Marble, once you know it better.
First of all, there are principles. Unlike the Google stuff, Marble is Free as in Freedom software, built to use equally free maps. Even at the purely practical level, however, Marble has many advantages. The most evident one may be performance. Marble can work using very little disk space and memory.
This is partly due to the fact that Marble deliberately does not try to always give you the highest possible resolution. Marble is perfect for the many cases where you don't need to see details as large as just a few yards. By default, Marble uses simplified maps that are very quick to browse, so it runs quite smoothly even on old computers.
All the maps you want
The other big advantage of Marble is its customizability. Marble itself can be embedded as a map widget inside other programs, and already is. Personally, I use it a lot to quickly localize photographs inside digiKam.
Above all, Marble can use many different maps (as proof of concept, the standard collection includes maps of Earth temperature and precipitation, as well as Moon maps). From a purely technical point of view, you may load other maps into Marble, even maps from Google, Mapquest, and other commercial providers, but of course license restrictions apply.
Luckily, Marble includes, by default, maps based on static images from OpenStreetMap. There are many other maps you can install without legal problems following these instructions. Even more maps, including those of several planets, are at Kde.org. Some of them may be already included in the Marble binary package of your Gnu/Linux distribution.
If all this isn't enough, you can create your very own Marble maps, starting from any image with the right characteristics. In fact, you may also use Marble to browse panoramic photographs, if they are in the proper format. You can create maps through the graphical Map Creation Wizard or, if you need the greatest possible flexibility, starting from scratch. Explanations for using OpenStreetMap in Marble at the highest possible resolution are here instead.
Maps that speak with any voice
Marble includes a route finder function, that can give you voice directions just like commercial applications and devices. You can, among other things, use voices from a TomTom navigator in Marble. Ready-to-use speaker voices for both Marble and TomTom, in several languages, are here.
That's not where the fun is, though: following this procedure, you can easily record your own voice for use in Marble!
Marble has several plugins that change its look, make navigation easier, or integrate in the maps information from several online sources. The last category is the most interesting, at least in certain contexts. Activating the right plugins in the View menu you can lay out on the maps things as different as:Satellite routes or locations of ham radio operators
A great classroom tool
Very low hardware requirements, custom maps, integration with online libraries, and assorted databases and scientific resources -- wait a minute! Aren't these key features for any great didactical tool? Of course they are.
Almost any teaching subject (history, biology, social sciences, literature...) can, and probably should, be linked to geography to make it more interesting, meaningful and valuable. In Marble, teachers can easily bookmark the relevant locations for their next lesson and then quickly recall them, along with all the corresponding pictures and texts, once in the classroom.
The value of Marble as educational tool increases when you realize that it is not only a gateway to "read-only" resources to be used passively. The linking between place names and coordinates happens through the geonames database that, just like Wikipedia, everybody can help to improve. Several map editors for OpenStreetMap are just one click away. Adding to all this the speaker voice creation for navigation, it's easy to see how Marble can entertain and motivate students (or your own kids!) to both learn and have fun, while helping others find their way around the world.
Marco Fioretti is a freelance writer and teacher whose work focuses on the impact of open digital technologies on education, ethics, civil rights, and environmental issues.