Virtual Earth Now Windows Live Local

On Thursday, Microsoft plans to retire MSN Virtual Earth after just five months of providing maps and satellite imagery. Its replacement will be Windows Live Local, a service that brings together local search, mapping and business listings under the new Live.com brand.

Microsoft had originally aimed to make the 45-degree satellite views that will be a hallmark of Windows Live Local as part of the original Virtual Earth debut. However, when the service launched in July, the feature was notably absent.

The close-up imagery will come from Microsoft partner Pictometry and is expected to be initially available across ten U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Las Vegas.

Users will be able to zoom in and pan 360 degrees, giving the impression of flying over the cities. Pictometry chartered planes that flew at a low altitude to take the images used in the service.

"The combination of immersive aerial imagery, customizable map annotations, innovative driving directions and the ability to share local search information with others gives users an incredibly powerful and easy way to find what they want and get where they want to go," said MSN Search corporate vice president Christopher Payne.

Social features will play a major role in Windows Live Local. Customized maps can be created and annotated for sharing with others. Users can also click on buildings to get information on the location, as well as driving directions and business listings.

Furthermore, the service is expected to be integrated into MSN Messenger to allow people in a conversation to see and annotate the same map.

Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox notes that Microsoft's foray into local mapping focuses on the social interaction, which he says is even bigger news than the angled views Windows Live Local will offer.

"As Local and other Windows Live services launch and mature, connectedness with friends or family will be, I predict, the most important benefits," Wilcox told BetaNews Wednesday. "Take this for example: sending real maps, rather than links to maps, in IM; or looking for local restaurants and seeing where buddies went to eat."

Starting Thursday, the beta of Windows Live Local can be found at local.live.com.

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