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Amazon A9 takes it to the streets

Service merges photographs and maps for location-based search service that offers virtual tours of two dozen U.S. cities. is merging photographs and maps in a new search service that offers virtual tours of two dozen U.S. cities.

The company's A9 search subsidiary is expected on Tuesday to launch a beta of Maps, which lets people see street-level photos of addresses and get driving directions.

The service integrates interactive maps with A9's Block View technology, which offers photos of both sides of streets taken from trucks equipped with digital cameras and Global Positioning System receivers. The 35 million shots taken so far are also used in Amazon's Yellow Pages search, which features photos of businesses alongside addresses and phone numbers.

The new Maps service lets people get driving directions by clicking on starting and destination points on the map and shows photos of locations corresponding to points on the map clicked with the cursor. Instead of having to type in addresses, people can click on a point on the map and the corresponding address will pop up.

The service also allows for navigation through zooming in and out and shows which roads have had street-level photos taken.

"We're making the map a little less abstract; a little more like reality," A9 Chief Executive Udi Manber said.

So far, only one photo has been taken of most addresses, although images for the San Francisco Bay Area are refreshed for testing purposes, Manber said. The company has not decided how often it will update the photos, he added.

The company has worked with privacy advocates to assuage their concerns and has received "few complaints, if any" since it launched the Block View technology six months ago, Manber said. A9 has had only one request to remove an image and complied with that request, he added.

Amazon, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN are in a heated race to provide the best maps and location-based search tools on the Web. Last month, MSN launched its Virtual Earth beta, and Google released a "hybrid" site of its own that lets people see an aerial view of a location superimposed on road maps.