Microsoft offers a new angle on maps

Beta version of Windows Live Local features changeable bird's-eye views, integrated mapping and search. Images: Microsoft maps take a bird's-eye view

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read
Microsoft on Thursday 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.

The service offers 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 new 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.

Users don't 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.

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 Stephen Lawler, general manager for MapPoint and MSN Virtual Earth. 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.

Driving directions can be enhanced to include information on construction areas and other helpful data. The service also includes enhanced printing options and an updated automatic location finder for people using Wi-Fi with laptops and tablet PCs.

"I think it's 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.

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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Microsoft plans to add street-level images in the future. However, Lawlor said neither street-level nor satellite-based aerial views provide enough visual information for people to really see where they want to go.

"Rooftops don't give you enough context," he said. "Literally, we want to digitize the real world and bring it to you on your computer."