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Mapmaking at Microsoft

MSN’s Virtual Earth map service has morphed into “Windows Live Local.” What can it do for you?

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.

As part of its overhaul of Windows Live, Microsoft programmers also made it easier for users to annotate their own maps and share the information they collect. One can place “pushpins” at points of interest or jot down a note in a scratch pad, then send the information to friends via an e-mail or an MSN Messenger instant message. One can also post it on a MSN Spaces blog. Using the bird’s eye view, a pushpin, and the scratchpad, a person arranging an assignation could turn “meet me in the park” into “meet me at this bench in the park.”[PA1]

Windows Live Local is “pretty compelling,” says Schuyler Erle, chief engineer at Locative Technologies and co-author of O’Reilly Media’s Mapping Hacks: Tips & Tools for Electronic Cartography. “Bird’s eye view is pretty cool. It was only a matter of time before someone could figure that out, and I’m pretty impressed by it.”

Yet Erle also says Windows Live Local, like other local search services is still lacking in areas. “They’ve come up with some nifty features, but what’s missing in local search is actual functional results,” he says. Erle notes that local searches are based on computer algorithms that still struggle to sort information in the way a human would. For instance, a search for “foam stuffing” could also bring up “turkey stuffing” – a bad choice if you need to make pillows.

Overall, Erle doesn’t believe that these new features give Windows Live Local a clear advantage over competitors such as Google Earth, Google Maps, or Yahoo Local. “The field is still wide open,” he says.

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