Microsoft launches Virtual Earth

Microsoft’s new Virtual Earth was launched today in Beta form. Though sooner than expected, this launch is an apparent response to Google’s new Hybrid View in its competing Google Maps service, which trumps the labelled aerial photo feature that had previously been touted as unique to Virtual Earth.

Virtual Earth is a direct competitor to Google Maps, providing a free pannable, zoomable, DHTML-powered view of the world that can be switched between flat maps and satellite imagery.

The user interface provided by Virtual Earth is more innovative than Google Maps’, with the map view occupying most of the browser window, with floating tool windows appearing over the map. The interface allows you to pan around by dragging the map directly, or by clicking and dragging away from the floating compass in the corner (Microsoft calls this “game mode”). You can also make use of your mouse’s scroll wheel to zoom in and out. Zooming is done with a spiffy animated effect, stretching the currently-displayed imagery to the new scale before loading the new imagery in its place. Also included is a “Locate me” feature, which does its best to pinpoint your current location either using your IP address or via an ActiveX control.

In playing with Virtual Earth in Firefox, I came across a couple of UI bugs related to the mouse scroll wheel (the map view would appearently scroll up or down in addition to zooming in or out), but for a rushed release it’s pretty solid in its cross-browser support. Less solid was the server providing imagery for the maps — even on a highspeed ADSL connection in North America, I encountered many broken images where tiles of imagery should have been. In most cases, zooming out and then back in would get those images to load correctly on the second try.

Where Virtual Earth pales in comparison to Google Maps is in the quality of its satellite imagery and international coverage. Though major US centres have decent imagery, the rest of the world seems to only be imaged at about 1km per pixel–useless for navigation purposes. Additionally, high-resolution satellite imagery without labels is inexplicably displayed in black-and-white, something I’d expect Microsoft to address pretty quickly in an update to the service.

Road maps are excellent for North America, but the rest of the world only gets labels for major cities. No doubt this too will be improved over time.

DHTML-wise, Virtual Earth is certainly more impressive than Google Maps. But if you ask me Microsoft has made a few sacrifices in usability to implement the bells and whistles of its interface. To a DHTML-savvy power user like me the interface certainly appeals, but I’m not sure my parents could figure it out.

Update: The Virtual Earth team has launched a blog to keep people up-to-date on developments with Virtual Earth. Meanwhile, Via Virtual Earth seems to be the first third-party site dedicated to the service.

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  • http://www.guestbookz.com Darren884

    Looks pretty cool.

  • Justme

    Like always, Microsoft is quickly to follow an innovation product with its own slower, buggier, microsoft-centric version. Virtual Earth pales to Google Eartch.

    Google has better images, is more intuitive, and (most of all) works on ANY browser.

    They say copying is the best for of flattery. Well… hats of to google.

  • http://www.realityedge.com.au mrsmiley

    I like the interface much better than Google Maps. In true MS style, they’ve spent a lot of time getting the interface slick, but like you pointed out Kevin, the maps leave a lot to be desired. Pity Australia isn’t covered by these maps in detail yet. I wonder if WhereIs (Sensis & Co) will end up going down this path as well for local searching by integrating satellite imagery? Its still more of a gimmick than something useful unless you want to plan an interstate trip.

  • http://www.chameleon-systems.com csi95

    Google’s Map program is much nicer. Of course, Microsoft has to be petty too. The Register has found that they removed Apple’s HQ from their maps.

    http://www.channelregister.co.uk/2005/07/25/msn_earth_deletes_aple/

  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ Kevin Yank

    Easy with the accusations, csi95, the omission is due to Microsoft using old imagery for many areas of the United States. This imagery was taken before the Apple campus was built.

    Apologies in advance if you were aiming for satire. :)

  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ Kevin Yank

    [quote=Justme]Google (…) (most of all) works on ANY browser.[/quote]To be fair, Virtual Earth does seem to work on every browser that Google Maps does. I’m sure the minor bugs (e.g. scrolling in Firefox) will be ironed out by the end of the beta.

  • http://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com sidhighwind

    The satelite version of google maps is more current than is microsofts. it’s very sad that microsoft can’t get current maps (currently theirs are older than some 6 years). How do i know this this. If you look at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on google you will see the road course that was built in 1999/2000. if you look at the msn maps it’s not there….i’m still going to use google maps it’s way better.

  • mandrake

    earth.google.com is far superior. I am using it even to pass my time… It simply works

  • http://www.errewf.it RaS!

    Pff….

  • http://boyohazard.net Octal

    Interesting how Microsoft can do nothing right in the eyes of web developers/designers/professionals.

    I am no different in this case. If there is limited to no support for countries outside N America then I won’t bother with it.

  • flygrrl

    I have no intention of climbing on the Microsoft bandwagon; but Google purchased a fairly well developed application. Microsoft is building from scratch and it’s only in beta. Fairness would dictate waiting for the final version before making serious comparisons.

    The good news for MS FlightSim fans is that in a few years it may be possible to have quality worldwide terrain.

  • Thomas Paulsen

    …and yet, they both suffer miserably from the sad american idea that the united states of america is the only inhabited place on earth.
    On searching for my hometown Trondheim, Norway (yes, that’s a country.. :)) I get *NO* results from Virtual Earth, whereas Google Maps knows it’s there, but both map data and aerial shots are missing… So how can it be Virtual EARTH when only *one* continent is detailed in it??
    Kudos to Google for also including the UK..
    The location finder [by IP] tool in Virtual Earth doesn’t work, and installing the Location Finder ActiveX control is just too cumbersome… *I KNOW* where I’m at! :)
    Betas for sure, I still think they could be nice products… For geocachers like myself, I’ve always wanted a map to view my finds.. ;-)

  • http://www.imperu.net/ ronald_poi

    microsoft… what else could i expected from them?

  • http://www.casualcode.com eXplosive

    Looks nice … I like the double click zoom feature.

  • http://www.deanclatworthy.com Dean C

    That is absolutely terrible. Not only is the imagery poor, but to be honest I can’t even figure out how to use it. It’s slow, and just confuses me.

  • http://www.lopsica.com BerislavLopac

    Of course, Google Earth (http://earth.google.com) still looks better and can do more.

  • MonkeyG

    Google Maps and Google Earth blow Microsoft Virtual Earth out of the water. While they may have “better” DHTML…blah blah blah. People don’t care about that. People want easy to use interfaces with results in the blink of an eye. Google offers a clean, easy to use interface with faster results.(period)

  • termmert

    Great, Loved it, couldn’t get lost without it, Keep it up Microsoft!!!!!

  • justinjoylife

    just because MS expands the map to fulllscreen doesn’t make it more innovative…

    “The user interface provided by Virtual Earth is more innovative than Google Maps’, with the map view occupying most of the browser window, with floating tool windows appearing over the map.”

    some might say that is just bells and whistles…

  • Alycev

    Just checking out the reviews they all seem outdated…05/31/06. Im not anywhere as informed as you guys thats why I was looking. I just purchased Microsoft works suite 2006 and it had street & trips 2006. Before I can use it, I have to choose between my IP address or the location finder installer. I was just trying to be careful and look into the ramifications of installing the location finder. I find whenever you give something the invite to your pc, your mostly sorry you did so. It seems hard to get rid of your software guest if you change your mind. So beings this is about a year later any updates on opinions??? alycev.