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In July, Microsoft unveiled MSN Virtual Earth, an interactive mapping and search service that featured aerial photographs and was intended to compete with similar services from Google and Yahoo. Now Microsoft has added some long-promised features to the Web-based service and rebranded it Windows Live Local – the newest component of Microsoft’s Windows Live platform, a nascent set of Internet services and software intended to help people form communities and share information online.

With the new service, Microsoft hopes to give Internet users an easy way to find what they want and get where they want to go – and view a few ads along the way. “We believe that Windows Live Local will deliver an online mapping experience to consumers that no other company has been able to rival,” says Steve Lombardi, program manager for Virtual Earth/Windows Live Local.

Online maps have been available for years. But it’s only in the last six months or so that a keen competition has gotten underway to provide the public (and especially Internet geography hounds) with the best aerial images, search functions, and technological tricks. Amazon’s A9.com offers storefront views of businesses in more than 20 cities; Google Earth allows a viewer to take a virtual flight over a satellite or aerial photograph; and Yahoo makes it easy for users to add their own reviews of local businesses.

Microsoft is attempting to distinguish itself in this already-crowded field by adding several new features. One of the most impressive is Bird’s Eye View, a tool that gives a 45-degree-angle look at buildings and landscapes in 11 U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle. Pictometry International, a Microsoft partner, captured the high-resolution images with cameras on Cessna planes that flew over the cities at low altitudes.

Using Bird’s Eye View, says Lombardi, users are able to “see a real-world view of an intersection you need to turn on, or to actually see what a hotel looks like before booking your reservation.” At least on the outside.

With another new feature, users can get driving directions without entering a specific address. Instead, by clicking on a city park or shopping mall, for instance, that site is set as a destination or starting point.

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