An example of a map projection: the area-preserving Mollweide projection of the earth. Image credit: NASA
A map projection is any method used in cartography (mapmaking) to represent the dimensionalsurface of the earth or other bodies. The term "projection" here refers to any function defined on the earth's surface and with values on the plane, and not necessarily a geometric projection.
Flat maps could not exist without map projections, because a sphere cannot be laid flat over a plane without distortions. One can see this mathematically as a consequence of Gauss's Theorema Egregium. Flat maps can be more useful than globes in many situations: they are more compact and easier to store; they readily accommodate an enormous range of scales; they are viewed easily on computer displays; they can facilitate measuring properties of the terrain being mapped; they can show larger portions of the earth's surface at once; and they are cheaper to produce and transport. These useful traits of flat maps motivate the development of map projections.