MSN Virtual Earth: A Week After Launch

By Adena Schutzberg

It's been a busy week for Microsoft.It rolled out Virtual Earth beta to the world on July 25.The company and website have been the subject of much criticism since.Most of the press coverage suggests that the company is behind rival Google in the "online super-heating whiz-bang mapping" arena.The missing and older data in some areas (notably Apple headquarters) has put many off.See coverage noted at All Points Blog including a series of articles (financial and otherwise) and two key quotes.

Some of the imagery data (this is from USGS) is simply unusable.

But now, the dust is settling and it's time to have a look at the app itself.

Distinguishing Feature
The least covered and hyped part of the new offering is its Locate Me tool.Wired users can be located via IP address (that's been done for some time by companies like Quova and Digital Envoy, among others). Wireless users can download a small app that does locating based on connection to a Wi-Fi access point.(Sources note that the app is not from Skyhook Wireless.) IP locating put me in Boston, which is where I am.I tried the Wi-Fi locating from my house.I expected little since the only points to which I have access are a few stray consumer ones, including my own.But to my amazement, the location was literally a block off.That may well tell me which of my neighbors' wireless networks I was on!

Locate Me, using wireless access points, put me within a block of my house.

Room for Improvement

Here there be dragons.I found the "no image" icon distracting. How about just making areas where no data is available gray or something? A huge camera with a slash through it is out of place.
MSN Virtual Earth uses this symbol when there is no available imagery data.

Zoom to the data. Local searches work, but why do they not zoom to a reasonable scale so that locations found are not one on top of the other automatically?

Search results are by default overlaid on the current geography.It'd be nice if they were "zoomed to."

Driving to another website.
Getting driving directions requires at least one pushpin to activate.That's ok.But once you request directions to or from it, you are sent out to another browser window to MSN Maps and Directions.It's rather tedious and inelegant.The Help offers that you can jump back and forth between the two browser windows, which I suppose can be helpful at times.The good news: the two sites are expected to merge in the future, which should solve the problem.

Metadata. It's nice that as you pan across the imagery, the "Image Courtesy" note in the lower right changes to indicate the source of imagery (mostly I saw USGS DOQQs and NASA data).More metadata would be helpful, like the date of the imagery.

Scratch and E-mail.The Scratch Pad works nicely.Simply click on a pushpin's "add to Scratch Pad" and it appears on the Pad.The e-mail link on found locations works equally well - populating an e-mail message with the link, text and a subject "My Virtual Earth Scratch Pad."

Resources and Hacks
Virtual Earth does not yet have the slew of hacks Google Maps/Earth have racked up in the last few months, pre- and post-API publication. As of now, Microsoft has not made an API public, but it is expected to in the near future.

But there is a "fan site" claiming to offer "everything you need to get started creating applications that use Microsoft's Virtual Earth." And, there's a blog from the Virtual Earth team with its unique point of view comparing its offering to Google Maps among other tips for users.

Still, there are a few hacks.This one, developed by someone at Microsoft (an architect on the Web Platform and Tools Team), puts photos on the map.
MSN Virtual Earth hack puts photos on the map.

Tatsuhiko Miyagawa documented how you can hack the locating tool.He used it to post this sample which posts the user's location on um, er, Google Maps!

Summing Up
While I tend to agree that for now MSN Virtual Earth is not "killer" either as an end-user or developer platform, the potential is there. And, we are all aware that Microsoft has launched some very poor first efforts in its day and followed up with stronger and stronger entries.

Published Thursday, August 4th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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