Windows Live Local Offers a New View

MSN will officially open MSN Virtual Earth to the public on Thursday, incorporating it into its Windows Live offering as Windows Live Local.

The latest version offers a new view: Photography taken at an oblique angle to show the facades of buildings rather than their tops. The imagery, licensed from Pictometry, depicts cities, landmarks and points of interest at a 45-degree-angle view that Windows Live Local calls the “birds-eye” view.

Tom Bailey, MSN director of marketing, said the bird’s-eye view was a key differentiator between Windows Live Local and other mapping services that offer only aerial views.

“We’re very bullish that now and over time, an immersive local experience will be a key to winning and establishing ourselves in that space,” he said.

Rival local search service A9 sends out personnel to take street-level photos of buildings to be used in local search; its Mechanical Turk project pays consumers a few pennies to review the photos and select the best ones.

Bailey said that a full-on street-level view doesn’t offer as much perspective as the three-quarters bird’s eye view, but MSN has a similar photography project in progress. “Street-level imagery is part of our imagery strategy,” he said. “We too are investing in driving roads and will have imagery like that, but not in the immediate future.”

MSN launched the beta version of Virtual Earth in July, offering a mix of maps and aerial photography that connects to local search. Aerial images come from Microsoft Research’s TerraServer-USA project.

“Users are now in control,” Bailey said. “They can identify any place on a map, click, establish their own pushpin for that area, whether it’s a house, office or that mystical parking lot, and route to that place immediately.”

Users can do multiple business searches from within the same map area, for example, searching for hotels, restaurants or dry cleaners, then add selected results to a “scratch pad.” Saving a search generates a unique URL that can be e-mailed to others, and Bailey hopes that ability will create a viral marketing effect.

Windows Live Local has more enhancements to its driving directions feature, as well. “We tried to beef that up and not just bring to market the same driving directions available on every site,” Bailey said. For example, each numbered item in the directions, such as, “turn left at Main Street,” is clickable, bringing up a detailed view of the map, so that users can “practice” going over the route, identifying any confusing spots.

Integration with MSN Search will automatically combine results from city- or region-specific White Pages and Yellow Pages directory information with a map showing the location of each business, via a Web services call to Microsoft MapPoint.

MSN Windows Live Local and Google Earth are in competition for eyeballs and for third-party applications. According to audience measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings, in October Google Maps had 16 million users, while MSN Maps and Directions had 2.9 million unique users.

The new view could be a game-changer, because it offers a greater sense of “being there,” and a lot more critical information, Bailey said.

To date, Pictometry information is available for geographic areas accounting for about 25 percent of the U.S. population, including the greater metropolitan areas of Manhattan, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. MSN will continue to work with Pictometry to shoot more landscapes, with a focus on highly populated areas and tourist destinations such as Las Vegas, which already shows up in bird’s-eye view.

Customers of RE3W, a real estate technology company, already are using Windows Live Local to identify and evaluate commercial investment property. The RE3W Web application connects via Web services to Windows Live Local and to information from The First American Corporation, a data services provider.

Real estate agents and investors can virtually “fly” into the business district of any city using Virtual Earth’s satellite view; the imagery is overlaid with a tax assessor’s parcel map from First American. The application lets them draw a box on the image to get a list of all the property owners, along with their contact information and telephone numbers.

They also can build files of documents and information for each property that can be managed and shared from within the application.

RE3W Web users can then switch to bird’s eye view, when available, to get look at individual buildings and — just as important — to evaluate what’s around them.

“Oblique photography is of great interest in the commercial real estate area,” said RE3W CEO Richard Frost. “It’s like you’re there. You get a sense of the height, dimension and depth.”

RE3W worked with Microsoft over the past two and a half years to integrate Windows Live Local with the application, which is delivered on a subscription basis. The real estate service was shown at the launch event for Windows Live and Office Live as an example of the kinds of things that could be built taking advantage of the application interface protocols Microsoft is making available.

The real estate application is an example of the way Microsoft hopes ISVs will “remix” its new “live software” approach.

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