Microsoft has released a beta version of Virtual Earth, a web-based application that combines local search with maps and aerial photography.
MSN has offered satellite imagery with maps with its local search results for quite some time. What's different with the new MSN Virtual Earth is that, like Google Earth, the display is focused primarily around maps and aerial views. You can zoom in and out of maps or images, and drag the images around within the display.
The basic search interface is similar to MSN local search, with "what" and "where" forms to specify what you're searching for. Text results for searches are displayed in floating popup windows on the left side of the display.
Clicking on a search result opens an information box on the map or satellite image you're currently viewing. There's also a "scratch pad" that allows you capture the name, address and description of search results you find useful as a list or itinerary. You can review these notes later, or email them to someone else.
Aerial photographs are overlaid with labels, showing street names, landmarks, and other features, even including directional arrows for one-way streets—a very nice feature if you're studying a new driving route and are trying to figure out your best navigation options.
A "permalink" function saves a screenshot of everything open in Virtual Earth, including the map view location, search results and scratch pad, and creates a unique URL that will restore everything in that view. But rather than providing an intuitive way to save your permalinks, as you do with the scratch pad, you must bookmark, email or copy a permalink to the clipboard and save it to some other program—a needlessly confusing extra step to save information about places.
A cool feature is the "locate me" link that attempts to automatically pinpoint your computer's geographic location. In its basic form, clicking the "use IP address" centers your view on your ISP's location.
You can also download the Location Finder utility which attempts to zero-in on your location more precisely, using WiFi access points and reverse IP lookups to determine your computer's location. Microsoft Location Finder is free, and can be downloaded either by clicking the "locate me" link and clicking the installation button, or directly from the Microsoft Download Center.
MSN is opening up the Virtual Earth service to developers, providing tools and code to allow you to create your own Virtual Earth web pages. More information can be found at the Via Virtual Earth web site.
There's also a "community" link, but with this release it's essentially just a poll and feedback form, rather than a truly interactive discussion among users and developers.
A big advantage with MSN Virtual Earth is that it is entirely web-based, so you don't have to download and install client software, as you must with Google Earth.
However, the beta launch of Virtual Earth has far fewer features than Google Earth, and lacks the smooth navigation and display functions that makes Google Earth so much fun to use. Although MSN Virtual Earth is clearly labeled as a beta version, it has many rough edges and feels like it was rushed into public view before being entirely ready for prime-time.
Microsoft promises that the next beta release of MSN Virtual Earth will include oblique, or bird's-eye, imagery licensed from Pictometry International Corp. that shows cities, landmarks and points of interest at a 45-degree-angle view. I expect that the next release will also include smoother panning and zooming capabilities, as well as the ability to tilt views—something that the current release doesn't allow. The next release is scheduled for later this year.
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