Microsoft Previews New MapPoint Web Service and MSN Virtual Earth Application Programming Interface

By Adena Schutzberg

Microsoft offered the press a heads up on planned announcements regarding MapPoint Web Server 4.0 and an updated application programming interface (API) for MSN Virtual Earth late last week.The official discussions of the new offerings will come this week at the Professional Developer's Conference (PDC) to be held in Los Angeles beginning on Tuesday.

MapPoint Web Service 4.0
The MapPoint updates are "more of the same" in many ways - new data, a few new features, and new styles for rendering the maps.The biggest addition from a purely technical GIS standpoint is support for polygons.These can be used for spatial queries and to bound territories and the like.Further, the service includes "a polygon-creation tool and several command-line tools for converting existing ESRI, MapInfo, Autodesk, Intergraph and GML files to the MWS polygon file format." A COM Add-in for MapPoint 2004 allows that desktop product to create MWS supported polygons.

The addition of real-time traffic information for 70 metropolitan areas will be a boon to those doing routing.Among the data included in the traffic feeds are accidents, backups, closures, estimated time to clear and options to reroute around the incident.

A host of new country/region basemaps are now available, including Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan, bringing the total to 26.New styles include the Line Drive Maps, once only available to end-users, which makes a "stick map" or schematic from complex directions.Trina Seinfeld, Lead Product Manager in the MapPoint Business Unit, referred to it as a "wedding map" during our call.Developers can now tap into a "night time" option, designed to make maps more readable in the dark.The backgrounds are black with roads in green.Also, available are static Urban Inset Maps, demanded by travel companies, to aid travelers.

MapPoint Web Service seems to have a loyal and vocal following, and based on how many times I heard "this group demanded" in our conversation, Microsoft is listening.The regular updates to the service, including the new country additions, is pulling Microsoft forward steadily in a space once dominated by MapQuest.

MSN Virtual Earth API
Speaking of dominated, Google recently had a monopoly on geo-hype with all the buzz about Google Maps and Google Earth mashups.But Microsoft revealed an interesting strategy that may endear (did I say that!) the vendor to many developers, especially those with limited resources.Here's the deal: the new MSN Virtual Earth control, which includes the What? and Where? query boxes, is free for commercial use.Got that? Let me type it again: free for commercial use.(Non-commercial use is ok, too, just to be clear.)
The newly announced MSN Virtual Earth API provides access to nearly all of the offerings functions.

The JavaScript/AJAX control can be embedded in websites and standalone applications.It includes navigation tools (zoom, pan), manages which tiles of data to request from the server, and renders the data.The server does all the heavy lifting including finding and sending the data, doing the What? and Where? queries, etc.Only two parts of "end user" MSN Virtual Earth will not be available to developers: the Scratch Pad (where one can store "notes") and Locate Me (the tool to find the location of a client, via a wired or wireless network.) Stephen Lawler, General Manager of the MapPoint Business and MSN Virtual Earth Business Unit, who described the new API, was quick to say yes, when I asked if developers could craft their own version of those tools and include them in an application.Microsoft notes in its own literature that MSN Virtual Earth offers these features to developers that are not in any other Microsoft offering at this time:

  • Multiple map styles (Road, Satellite, and Hybrid map views)
  • Geographical local search capabilities ("What"/"Where" search boxes)
  • Scroll mouse zooming
  • Map tiles
  • Drag to pan
  • Double-click to re-center and zoom
  • "Search" button and "Search" results stack
  • Pushpin pop-up
  • Zoom bar

Business Models for Microsoft and its Developers
Microsoft, I believe, is the first of the new breed of map API providers to disclose its business model.Lawler made it clear that Microsoft wanted to be able to offer both a technical solution for the range of interested developers (from hobbyists to professionals) and provide a viable economic solution for them as well (from those working in basements to those in corporate offices).So, there are essentially two options.Developers can use the control for no charge for commercial (and non-commercial) purposes.The control includes the What? and Where? tools which will, potentially anyway, send advertising dollars back to Microsoft's coffers.If developers would rather not include those two boxes, they are welcome to sign a contract, essentially the MapPoint Web Service contract, to gain access without those additions.Entering into such a contract is essentially a service level agreement, guaranteeing 99.9% uptime and the like.The free version has no such guarantees.Microsoft officially addresses these options on Via Virtual Earth.

There's one more revenue idea up Microsoft's sleeve.In the future, developers will be able to opt to host "Ad Sense" type adds outside the map frame.If they chose to do so, they will share revenue with Microsoft.Implementing that advertising is completely optional and can be combine with either the free or contract level implementation.

I had to ask about the existing Via Virtual Earth website, a third party site that until now has been the central support system for MSN Virtual Earth developers, even though Microsoft until now, has no officially announced an API.The site is hosted by Dr.Neil, who is described as an "influential Microsoft partner" by Seinfeld.I was a bit disappointed that Microsoft did not take on responsibility for its API (though it was not really announced) at the launch of the offering on June 25.While Via Virtual Earth will continue to host its community resources, much of technical information regarding the Virutal Earth API will be available where all other Microsoft developer information lives, on the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN).

Marketing Against Google
Before going further, I want to comment on Microsoft marketing choices regarding this announcement.There was no press release, nor will there be.The information (effectively a press release) was introduced by Chandu Thota, a Microsoft employee, in his blog, and will appear next week in PDC documents.When I asked why there was no press release, Seinfeld explained, "We wanted to take a slightly different path" in the announcement.That, and the not-hosted-by-Microsoft Via Virtual Earth website sound to me like Microsoft is trying, perhaps too hard, to act like that other company with the wildly successful developer/hacker community built around its mapping APIs.Another sign of trying to catch up? A contest for MSN Virtual Earth applications.

The calendar looks like this.The MapPoint Web Service 4.0 should be online as you read this.MSN Virtual Earth should have an upgrade this fall, but will remain in beta until the first of the year.The Virtual Earth API will be released this week at the developer conference but Service Level Agreements won't be available until January 1, 2006.

Published Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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