Microsoft improves online maps

Microsoft improves online maps

Last night we got a demo of the new version of Windows Live Local, Microsoft's online mapping system [See story]. It should be launched by the time you read this. This rev brings some important additions to this service, but even though Live Local and competitors Yahoo Maps and Google Maps are far ahead of first-generation mapping systems (such as MapQuest--what is going on over there?), there's still a lot of room left for these products to grow.

There are four big improvements in this new version of Live Local. The first two are necessary feature enhancements: the system now has live traffic data (you can't have a modern route-finding tool without this), and there are new levels of detail in Europe and the United Kingdom--again, a requirement, as a United States-only mapping tool will never take over the world.

The third addition is an improved system for saving and tagging flagged locations. You can now save locations in collections, and you can share those collections. You might want to do this if you created, for example, a collection of restaurants in your favorite city. What you can't do yet is open up your collection to a group of people to edit. Microsoft is talking about how Live Local previews the beginnings of the "geocommunity," but until the community can edit geo data, it's just words. For a look at even richer concepts in geocommunity, see the personal location tracker Plazes and the community group map Frappr, both of which use the Google API for mapping.

The fourth, and most important, addition to Live Local is its integration with Microsoft's communication products, Outlook and Messenger. There's now a plug-in for Outlook that adds a Location tab to calendar events. It links to Live Local and will provide directions to the event from your default location or any location you specify. If it is a group appointment, everyone will get their own directions. The coolest feature is that the add-in will automatically block out your calendar with the appropriate amount of driving time before your meeting. You can't get walking directions yet, though.

If you're a user of the add-in and you send someone a meeting request with location info, they'll get some of the data and a link to the add-in; this could make the add-in viral and help it spread quickly. Unfortunately, getting the directions on the device where you really need them--your smart phone--is not automatic. It will be a one-click operation to paste static directions into the notes of an appointment, but better and more automatic integration with smart phones and PDAs is yet to come.

Live Local is very nicely integrated with the Messenger IM client. You'll be able to chat with someone while you're collaborating in a map view. If you're setting up a rendezvous at a Starbucks, this would be a good way to make sure you're both talking about the same one.

The new version of Live Local, like the current one, has a good user interface, but there's still an awkward shift when you transition from the overhead satellite and map views to the oblique bird's-eye view. Microsoft is fixing this and planning to add even finer-grained, street-level photography. Currently, the best street-level data is on Amazon's A9 Maps, although Microsoft also has a slick demo of its own eye-level data.