MSN Joins Google In Melding Satellite Imagery With Search

Less than one week after Google announced it intended to launch "Google Earth," a satellite imagery-based tool, MSN unveiled its own mapping and local search offering that features satellite imagery. MSN's new product, "Virtual Earth," unveiled at the "D3: All Things Digital" Conference in San Diego Monday, will be available mid-summer.

"It's an extension of our broader search strategy that extends local search into a deeply immersive search experience," said Tom Bailey, MSN's director of sales for Microsoft's MapPoint. "Users can literally dive into the map to explore, share, and plan activities with respect to a particular location."

The Web-based Virtual Earth will incorporate local search, directions, and satellite imaging from Microsoft's TerraServer, Bailey said. The local search results are culled from Yellow Pages directories, and below the natural results, MSN will also include sponsored links.

The service will also include features such as traffic and weather pattern analysis, which will be overlaid on the satellite images or traditional mapping application. MSN also plans to assist third-party developers who want to see more information overlaid onto the basic mapping and local search application.

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In addition to the TerraServer images, MSN also will incorporate images from Pictometry, a mapping company that produces isometric images of major cities using camera-equipped aircraft. The isometric images can also be overlaid with search data.

Virtual Earth also will feature an online clipboard, allowing users to save their searches.

John Battelle, a long-time search engine observer, said that both MSN Virtual Earth and its recently announced rival, Google Earth, will likely entertain users. But, he said, the real challenge for both companies is to construct a product that's useful and generates revenue. "As products, they're both going to be very gee-whiz," Battelle said. "I think the proof will be in the commerce integration--whether you can integrate it into a useful application that can make money."

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