MSN Unveils Virtual Earth

MSN Monday launched "Virtual Earth," a local search mapping function, prompting Google to announce upgrades to its own satellite mapping product, "Google Earth," released earlier this month.

MSN's beta product features detailed aerial photos of locations, with names of streets affixed to their images. Virtual Earth also includes a locator function--which uses IP addresses or Wi-Fi access points to find a user on the map; a scratch pad for saving search results; a permalink function that allows users to save entire searches; Yellow Pages directories; and drag-and-drop map controls.

Google immediately responded to MSN's roll-out by announcing it had revised Google Earth by adding a "hybrid view" street map overlay that places street names and boundaries on top of the satellite map.

MSN's initial announcement of the Virtual Earth product came only days after Google announced in May its intention to fold the Keyhole satellite mapping program into a local search and mapping utility called Google Earth. The two products have many of the same features, although Virtual Earth is entirely Web-based, while Google Earth is a downloadable program.



Kelsey Group analyst Greg Sterling said that while Virtual Earth doesn't add any groundbreaking technology, it is on par with the offerings at Yahoo! and Google. "I don't think it represents a next-generation product, but it does a nice job of duplicating the functionality that already exists on Google and Yahoo!--it's a nice addition to their product and a necessary one," he said.

The competition in the search space has led the three biggest names in Web search--Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Google--to quicken their steps toward new products, shortening the product development cycle. "This whole mapping area will continue to develop and accelerate in its development," Sterling said. "I see the pace of product evolution accelerating now because there's a core of competitors in the space."

And the PR competition is just as intense as the competition to bring out the biggest, best, and shiniest new product, Sterling said. "These guys are all very sophisticated marketers, and what they're trying to do is maintain the perception of leadership," he said. "The PR game in this whole space is as intense as the actual development of the product." Google Maps' hybrid view had been available over the weekend, but the announcement was released on Monday, the same day of the Virtual Earth launch.

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