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CONNECTED COMMENT (16/08/05)

 

The battle for planet Earth has begun and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the principle antagonists are Microsoft and Google. At stake is nothing less than global domination of a market that industry analysts estimate could be worth tens of billions of dollars by the end of the decade.

 

The race is on to develop the most comprehensive and detailed online maps of the world’s major cities, and beyond, using a combination of graphics, satellite imagery and aerial photography. It sounds like a laudable enough aim and both Google Maps (http://maps.google.com/) and Microsoft Virtual Earth (http://virtualearth.msn.com/) are impressive online resources that allows Internet users to locate addresses and businesses and plan journeys. However, the real driving force behind this apparent largesse is the potential for huge advertising revenues. These, it is hoped, will flow from closer integration of maps and search engines with companies paying to have their locations flagged with clickable icons and adverts displayed in sidebar panels next to the map.

 

Microsoft’s Virtual Earth project has been in development for almost ten years and is based on its MapPoint technology and TerraServer map and satellite image database. Nevertheless Google Maps was first to launch in February this year, a move that prompted Microsoft to accelerate its plans and the ‘beta’ version of Virtual Earth went live in July.

 

Coverage outside of the US is still a little patchy with much of the planet either unmapped or limited to simple graphics detailing just major cities and highways. However, the UK is well served by Google Maps, both by search facilities, road layouts and a rapidly growing patchwork of high definition aerial images that in some areas are detailed enough to identify objects as small as trees and cars. 

 

Despite Google’s early lead Microsoft hopes to push ahead with number of interesting developments including 45-degree ‘Eagle Eye’ aerial images that gives users an angled view of buildings and locations, rather than just a picture of the rooftops. Images of 15 American cities have been processed so far and a small fleet of camera planes are currently criss-crossing the country adding to the database with plans to cover the US and beyond. Virtual Earth will have the facility to superimpose traffic and weather information onto maps, to help with route planning and users will be able to customise maps by adding their own information. Microsoft is also working on a feature called ‘Location Finder’. By clicking a Find Me button on the map page the system pinpoints the position of wireless equipped laptops and PDAs by measuring the signal strength of nearby Wi-Fi access points, even if they are not logged on.

 

Microsoft is chasing a fast moving target, though, and Google Maps is reckoned to be quicker and easier to use with smoother navigational and zoom controls. It has also spawned a number of associated web sites, including several ‘sightseeing’ lists, like: http://perljam.net/google-satellite-maps/. This one has direct links to aerial views of places of interest in more than 120 countries. You can look down upon MI6 headquarters and Canary Wharf in London, Bill Gates and Michael Jackson’s homes, Area 51 and the strangely blanked out roof of the White House. Microsoft’s images haven’t escaped close scrutiny either and the age of some of its satellite views has been called into question. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York are still visible, for example, and whilst Google Maps shows all of the buildings in Apple’s California headquarters the Virtual Earth image appears to be of an empty field.

 

Inevitably the question of privacy has arisen though at the present stage of development the level of detail and the uncertain age of the images should be enough to allay most people’s fears. However, both companies clearly plan to extend their coverage and as time goes by the resolution will improve and they will be updated more frequently so where will it all end?

 

Maybe Google has the answer. It is currently trialling a new satellite image service and this time it has set its beady eye on our nearest cosmic neighbour. Google Moon (http://moon.google.com/) displays photographs of the area of the Apollo landing sites and if you are still wondering what the Moon is really made of, try zooming in…

 

rick.maybury@gmail.com

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2005 1608

 

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