Microsoft has added an enhanced satellite view along with other new user features to its local search product, which was re-branded from Virtual Earth to Windows Live Local.
Microsoft of late has unveiled a beta version of Windows Live Local, which is based on its Virtual Earth aerial image application and integrates local search, mapping, driving directions and yellow pages with a bird's-eye view of major U.S. cities.
Beta 2 of the search service is available at http://local.live.com, according to Microsoft. The beta includes the re-branding of the service and new zoom and "bird's eye" features to the service's satellite imagery. The service will offer a 45-degree bird's-eye view covering about one-quarter of the country's population.
Cities include New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Las Vegas.
The bird's-eye images, captured by Pictometry International using low-flying planes, are integrated with road and satellite maps to simulate 360-degree panoramas that can be viewed from any of the four different compass directions. Users can choose between directional views, for instance, to see the front or back sides of buildings, or zoom closer using on-screen navigation tools and preview tiles.
The service also enables users to create customized maps by adding user-created pushpins, as well as annotate maps and share maps and local search information with others via e-mail by posting them as blogs on MSN Spaces or through MSN Messenger.
The new release also includes updates on how users can find driving directions and save search information, said Stephen Lawler, general manager of MapPoint and MSN Virtual Earth for Microsoft.
Users do not need to know the address or name of a place to locate its whereabouts, but can simply point and click to get directions. They can also click on a point on a map, including on a parking lot, building or open space, to create a pushpin there and get driving directions to that exact spot. In addition, users can switch between the aerial view and the birds-eye view of a map.
The re-branding under the Windows Live moniker also links the product to Microsoft's plan to offer a range of Web-based services to compete with rivals like Google and Yahoo. The thinking is that Web users ultimately will have a seamless Web experience when they want to link up with their social communities through applications such as search, instant-messaging and e-mail.
In fact, Microsoft is providing Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for Windows Live Local so third parties can build new applications that incorporates the service, Lawler said. We fit in as the local pivot, providing global access to local knowledge, he said of the search service's place within Microsoft's Windows Live plan.
Microsoft plans to expand the bird's-eye view coverage with its exclusive partnership with Pictometry to cover as much as 90 percent of the U.S. population, which means the big cities but not all the "corn farms in Nebraska," said Lawler. The bird's-eye images are also likely to be refreshed every year, with areas such as the tree-filled northeast updated during the winter when the leaves are not obscuring the view, he added.
The bird's-eye view in Windows Live Local provides a 45-degree angled view, as opposed to the standard 90-degree view that orthogonal satellite images usually provide, he said. Rather than simply being able to view locations and neighborhoods by their rooftops, which does not offer a very clear idea of what the area looks like, the bird's-eye view provides an angle that allows users to see more of the location and its surrounding area, Lawler said.
Microsoft also enhanced the driving directions, pushpin and scratch-pad technology of the service. In the first beta of Virtual Earth, released in July, users could create pushpin locations on a map, but they were limited in how they could use that location for driving directions and the like, said Steve Lombardi, Virtual Earth program manager for Microsoft.
Now, users can create their own pushpins by right-clicking on a location and giving it a title, he said, demonstrating how the new service works. Right-clicking on a pushpin-marked location also allows users to write notes about it on Windows Live Local's scratch-pad technology, and save those notes so they can be sent by e-mail or bookmarked through a browser permalink.
Driving directions can be enhanced to include information on construction areas and other helpful data. The service also includes enhanced printing options and a location finder for people using Wi-Fi with laptops and tablet PCs.
I think it is very impressive. The photography offers a higher degree of resolution and clarity than what is otherwise available from aerial or satellite photography, said Greg Sterling, managing editor at The Kelsey Group.
There are a lot of personalization aspects to it, including the ability to add notes and create custom maps, he said. Sterling also praised Windows Live Local's integration with MSN Messenger, which allows multiple people to simultaneously view and interact with the same map.
Microsoft plans to add street-level images in the future. However, Lawler said neither street-level nor satellite-based aerial views provide enough visual information for people to really see where they want to go.
Rooftops do not give you enough contexts, he said. Literally, we want to digitize the real world and bring it to you on your computer.
Microsoft plans to offer a full production version of Windows Live Local in the first half of 2006, Lombardi said. He said the company is currently expanding the geographic coverage of the service so it is on par with the coverage found in MSN's Maps and Directions search product, which covers 30 countries.
AOL, Google and Yahoo also have integrated mapping and local search services, but Windows Live Local will be the first of the major mapping services to offer something other than just a view from directly above, as most satellite imagery has offered.
In addition to Google Local integrated map and search, the search company has Google Earth, a downloadable program that allows users to get a simulated view of flying over cities. And Amazon's A9 mapping tool displays street-level views in its service.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has added the U.K. to the second beta of Windows Live Local, but plans to expand way beyond that, Lombardi said. Once Windows Live Local can provide local search information for at least as many countries as Maps and Directions, Microsoft will "remove the beta label," he said.
Microsoft also plans to enhance the kind of information that can be searched through the service to extend beyond business information and directions to specific local events, user favorites and other information from sources other than standard Yellow Pages, Lombardi said.