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Mapping new battleground for Microsoft and Google

TechnologyThere are similarities between the recently launched MSN Virtual Earth, and Google Maps in that they both offer street-map and satellite views of addresses and driving directions to get to them. Both too, link their maps to search criteria from the input keywords of consumers services - stores, restaurants etc.

The next release of the MSN service, due this quarter, will add arial views of the locations from directly above and from angled shots allowing the searcher to see what the laundromat or whatever actually looks like within its neighborhood - Google Maps can't do that.

Virtual Earth can also pinpoint the location of a user on a Wi-Fi network by using Wi-Fi access points in the area, Google can't to that either. A client application called Microsoft Location Finder can be downloaded then, when the user clicks a "Find Me" icon in Virtual Earth, the MAC (media access control) is accessed for addresses of wireless access points that a user's device can reach, whether or not the user is logged in to any of them. Microsoft has assembled a database of the latitude and longitude of router MAC addresses in co-operation with interested parties. Location Finder finds the access points in the database and then triangulates the location of the user's device based on the signal strength from them.

This works well in urban areas where there are concentrations of wireless routers but less well in rural locations. Nevertheless there is a fairly comprehensive database of wireless access points across the country. On the subject of Wi-Fi location technology, Joseph Laszlo, research director for Jupiter Research said "It's a really important thing with smaller devices," "It can take much longer on a PocketPC device or cell phone to type out [your location]. If and when [Microsoft] extends this technology to mobile devices, it may be more important as a differentiator." Local search has been a major weakness in the MSN search engine. Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and AOL all have local search on their search Web sites.

It's becoming very popular with both users and advertisers. Users can find listings for a specific locality and advertisers can target their advertising dollars to their local customers. Jupiter's Laszlo thinks Virtual Earth may get Microsoft onto a more level playing field in the search market by gaining users' attention. "The theory is, if you can do really well at this particular fight - helping people navigate geographically where things are - you might win over more of a search customer, someone looking for something that's not as geographic."

Google Maps has been around since February when Microsoft was working on Virtual Earth as the result of an idea sent to what they call the "world's coolest suggestion box." Every year at Microsoft, employees can make a suggestion for a product or an idea they think should be developed and present it to Bill Gates. Virtual Earth was suggested last fall and it was in February that Gates decided it should be ready for July.

Microsoft has some of the technology for Virtual Earth for ten years - MapPoint and TerraServer, a database of satellite images. Virtual Earth is U.S. only immediately but Microsoft will add international locations in future versions. within the next six months, Microsoft will expose Virtual Earth as a Web service that will allow businesses to use the search tool on their Web sites too.

Reuben Dunn
Search Engine Optimization Company


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