You could call it Santa 6.0.
In what's becoming a regular product cycle, Google announced today the new features that Santa-tracking kids of all ages could expect starting on Christmas Eve at 2 am EST: primarily, support for the Google Earth plug-in, meaning that users will be able to watch Santa from within a browser rather than having to run the Google Earth software.
"Last year, users were prompted to install Google Earth, download the .kmz file, then open the .kmz in Google Earth. For some less-than-technically-savvy users, this 3-part process was confusing and difficult," explained the Google Geo Developers Blog. "Using the Plug-in is much easier; if users have the lightweight client (aka, the Plug-in) installed, all they have to do is visit the NORAD Tracks Santa Google Earth page, and they'll see Santa in 3D."
As with last year, other ways to track Santa include a Twitter feed (@noradsanta) and on mobile phones using Google Maps.
So how did a missile defense system begin tracking Santa in the first place?
It's actually a very sweet story. "The tradition began in 1955 after a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement for children to call Santa misprinted the telephone number," explains the NORAD Santa website. "Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put kids through to the CONAD Commander-in-Chief's operations "hotline." The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born."
Shoup must have had a hell of a sense of humor for a military man during the Cold War. The call actually came in on the red phone.
CONAD was replaced by NORAD in 1958, and the tradition continued, each year using state-of-the-art technology to track Santa. Currently, the organization said it uses four high-tech systems to track Santa – radar, satellites (using the infrared signature from Rudolph's nose), Santa Cams, and fighter jets.
Google got involved in 2004, before Keyhole Systems was even part of Google, and has since used Google Earth and Sketchup to help track Santa. In 2005, Google devoted 20 machines to the project, which let 250,000 people track Santa; in 2006, more than a million people tracked Santa. In 2007, Google became an official "Santa tracking partner' and hosted the website, as well as adding YouTube videos, for several million people.
Last year, Google said more than 8 million people tracked Santa.
Until the Santa tracking actually starts, kids can watch a countdown, including a series of almost two dozen games.
Also beginning on December 24, people can send email to email@example.com, where a NORAD staff member will provide Santa’s last known location in a return email.
Low-tech people can call 1 877 HI-NORAD starting at 4 am MST on December 24 to talk directly to one of almost 1,250 Canadian and American uniformed personnel – Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines, as well as DOD civilian and their families and friends – who volunteer their time on Christmas Eve to answer the thousands of phone calls and email messages.