MS Preps 'Virtual Earth' Mapping Service

Microsoft is firing a shot across Google's bow with a new service called MSN Virtual Earth. Virtual Earth overlays satellite imagery of local buildings and neighborhoods viewed at a 45-degree-angle onto its MapPoint maps and directions Web site. MSN is the second vendor to enhance its mapping services with images from space after an update made to Google Maps in April set an industry first by combining both of those elements.

Microsoft founder and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates announced the service over the weekend during the "D" Conference in California. At present time, the service provides 45-degree-angle views of buildings and neighborhoods within 10 U.S. cities using data provided by Microsoft partner Pictometry.

Local yellow page data from a third party will be added in as a rolling update, providing users with information on local businesses and attractions; users may add community information that is not listed in the database.

The 45-degree views are limited to the ten supported cities.

Unlike A9, America Online and Google, images of storefronts will not appear until the next calendar year. While that feature may be lacking, MSN has taken the satellite "zoom" function two levels closer than TerraServer and presumably its competitors.

In a private demonstration, BetaNews was shown detail that plunges down to local street blocks and nearly onto rooftops. Local landmarks are labeled and maps will be updated every two years on average.

Street maps and directions are overlaid onto the satellite images, creating hybrid maps, using the next generation of Microsoft's MapPoint technology. Traffic and weather patterns will be integrated into the maps as richer features are added to the basic service.

Another feature imposed over the satellite maps is a pop-up window called Scratch Pad. Scratch Pad is a clipboard collection area that temporarily stores recent searches and can be used to share searches with others through MSN Spaces or via e-mail.

Tom Bailey, Director of Sales and Marketing at Microsoft's MapPoint Business Unit, told BetaNews that MSN Virtual Earth will provide a common experience across portable services, automotive devices and the desktop, being scaled to each environment.

While it will not disclose any specific plans, Microsoft is considering integrating Virtual Earth across the full Microsoft spectrum with MapPoint, Microsoft Office and Microsoft CRM products currently in mind.

Microsoft sells commercial mapping software including: Microsoft MapPoint and Microsoft Street and Trips. Last week, rival Google announced its own desktop software called Google Earth.

Virtual Earth is being tested as a closed beta and is scheduled for release by the end of the summer.

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