Microsoft MSN Unveils Virtual Earth

Now that Microsoft has recognized Google as a potential threat to its future revenue stream, the company has been trying to create “Google killers.” A recent entry in this area is a response to Google’s satellite imagery. But will MSN’s Virtual Earth really deliver something more helpful to its users than Google’s offering? Indeed, will it even live up to its own hype?

Not too long ago I wrote an article about Google’s new satellite imagery feature. The innovation allows users to see actual images of the locations they are searching for, and even zoom in to get a good view of buildings and the surrounding area. Seeing those visuals could help prevent people from getting lost, especially when traveling to an unfamiliar address for the first time.

Near the end, I observed that any feature Google has, the other search engines will try to have within a couple of months. But I figured that satellite imagery might be a little trickier to copy. Google had purchased a digital mapping company in order to bring the expertise in house; I didn’t expect Yahoo or MSN Search to try to duplicate this feat, at least not for a while.

Naturally, I ran up against one of the hazards of making predictions in a fast-moving field like high technology. Breakthroughs are made almost daily, and anything that one person or company can accomplish, another can duplicate, and even improve upon. This trend is only heightened amid fierce competition, such as we’ve seen developing over the past couple of years between Microsoft and Google.

On May 23, at the D3 conference in Carlsbad,California, Bill Gates unveiled MSN Virtual Earth. No, this is not the incredibly fast Japanese supercomputer created by NEC; it is Microsoft’s answer to Google’s satellite imagery. By some accounts, MSN Virtual Earth inspired the very first “ooohhhh” moment of the conference, topping Steve Jobs’ podcasts in iTunes.

That must have been personally satisfying for Gates, who spent a significant amount of time during his talk focused on Apple killers as well as Google killers. But it leaves those of us who couldn’t make the conference wondering what inspired that moment. After all, PowerPoint presentations are forbidden at this particular conference.

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If you really want to know what wowed the audience at the talk given by Bill Gates, take a good look at this image: 

Beautiful, isn’t it? One aspect of MSN Virtual Earth includes 45 degree angle views of buildings and neighborhoods, such as the one above. This gives the user an “eagle eye” perspective of a particular area.

It may be the most visually stunning constituent of MSN Virtual Earth, but it’s not the only one, and it may not even be the most important. Microsoft’s developers put some real thought into how people can use technology to assist them when they travel, or when they anticipate moving. As of this writing, Microsoft had not yet released the full set of features, but what we know about it so far looks pretty good.

In addition to the 45 degree angle views of buildings and neighborhoods, MSN Virtual Earth will offer “hybrid maps.” These are street maps laid over satellite maps, letting users get a good view of both the map and the territory at the same time. Users will also benefit from full-bleed map views –- maps that take up nearly the entire screen, with which they can interact.

The feature that sounded most intriguing to me, though, was Scratch Pad. I think it has real potential for vacation or business trip planning. It’s an online clipboard that lets users perform multiple searches (and presumably save them).

Putting these features together, Microsoft officials gave the example of someone buying a house. They might want to look at the previous year’s traffic and weather patterns for the area, and find nearby restaurants and other businesses. With MSN Virtual Earth, they could get an aerial view on one map, and overlay information about local businesses, relevant links, and so on.  

Microsoft is all about integration, and MSN Virtual Earth is no exception. According to Steve Lombardi, a program manager for Microsoft’s MapPoint unit, MSN Virtual Earth can be integrated with a user’s preferred email application. With just one click, it could then place links in email messages to maps and images. I would be rather surprised if MSN Virtual Earth could be integrated with, say, the Thunderbird email application.

There will be more, albeit less flashy, improvements to the MSN search engine. Microsoft will shortly add a local search index to help users find business directory listings. Stephen Lawler, general manager of Microsoft’s MapPoint unit, said that the company wants user feedback on the listings, with the goal of giving those who use the listings a good sense of what a particular area is like.

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Microsoft is tapping more than one source of technology to pull this off. The aerial imagery comes from partner Pictometry International. Pictometry’s technology differs from Keyhole’s, the satellite firm Google purchased. It is still digital imaging, but it grabs as many as a dozen views of an area’s particular features.

According to Dante Pennacchia, chief marketing officer for Pictometry, “The difference between us and Keyhole is dramatic, because while they take an image and bend it, we provide a `see everything’ view that includes signs and other physical information such as windows and doors, at a location that isn’t available in their images.” In addition to Microsoft, Pictometry boasts such respected customers as the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Army, and public safety groups dealing with 911 communications. The company states that it has documents about 25 percent of the U.S.population area.

Microsoft’s other source of data is TerraServer. This is an online database operated by the software giant, which offers free access to U.S.maps and aerial photographs. The company has owned this database for about a decade. I was not that impressed by it recently when I compared it to Google’s satellite imagery offering.

Still, Microsoft is giving itself at least a little time to get this right. While the local search index for business directory listings should be up and running by the time you read this article, MSN Virtual Earth will take longer. Microsoft officials told PC World that they anticipated it would become available sometime between June 21 and September 22.

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It has been said before that Microsoft has a talent for copying the products of its competitors and leveraging its monopoly power. With that advantage, the software giant doesn’t need to make a better product; it just needs to make a good enough product, as Corel, Netscape, and others have learned. Google seems to be pushing Microsoft back into innovating, though. More than ninety percent of Web surfers may use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to navigate online, but most of them visit Google to find out where they want to go today.

The new technology, if it works as intended, might make Amazon’s A9 service even less of a contender than it is currently. Amazon has been using trucks equipped with digital cameras and global positioning receivers to take millions of photographs across the streets of the U.S. It aims to combine these photographs with business listings to let users put themselves virtually where they want to go. Granted, seeing the storefront at street level may be more helpful than seeing it in a bird’s eye view –- but I still have not been impressed with A9’s image delivery. I have yet to turn up a picture for a location, except for very well-known locations (such as the White House).

Yankee Group analyst Su Li Walker seems to think it will be a little while before we see competition in this area begin to pay off for the rivals. “This is still a novelty, but there are applications for virtual mapping which could prove popular,” she said.

Certainly, the folks who are working on MSN Virtual Earth are very excited about the technology’s possibilities. Chandu Thota, part of the team building the project, had this to say about it in his blog: “Virtual Earth is a fusion of many exciting dimensions that we experience from multiple sources today; it provides a core set of reference points such as maps, aerial imagery, photos, consumer and business directories and ratings and reviews and allow the broader community of consumers and businesses to contribute their own location-specific information to create an always expanding, dynamic and relevant local search experience.” Taken to its logical conclusion, it almost sounds like a redefinition of the phrase “virtual community.”

Richard Kaplan, president and chief executive officer of Pictometry, also sounds pumped: “MSN Virtual Earth will redefine the way people find, discover and plan activities. We are thrilled Pictometry will be part of creating these new and important experiences.”

When MSN Virtual Earth finally goes live, will it really have this much of an impact? Certainly not immediately. Indeed, if Google’s satellite imagery feature is any indication, the initial consequences will be unintended; many folks have used it almost like a big Easter egg hunt to find things that were “accidentally” imaged, such as the initial set up for the annual Burning Man festival. People have already seen that it can be fun; it just needs to prove that it can be useful. It could be that –- if it lives up to its hype.

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