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Community and Compensation Are Secret Weapons of Microsoft's New Virtual Earth

Locked in a game of leap frog with rival Google, Microsoft offers developers a carrot in the form of better community in order to put the momentum back behind its own mapping software engine.


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ager to gain momentum in the creation of software that facilitates local search and geo-centric applications, Microsoft has released a new version of its mapping software—not only with speed and features to rival Google Maps—but with plenty of community and developer incentives built in.

Microsoft announced Sunday that its new "Virtual Earth" will feature robust community features for developers, which, the company promises, will offer participants opportunities to contribute to the product's overall development. In fact, starting with the winter VE release, Microsoft plans “to encourage developers to share what they create using the application by offering compensation for good ideas,” said Mark Law, lead product manager for the Map Point business unit on MSN Virtual Earth.

An independent Developer Resource Center (http://www.viavirtualearth.com/), run by Microsoft MVPs, will be the control center where the development community can download the MSN Virtual Earth Map Control, find information about creating their own Web content with the service, and share their own experiences and inventions. Users will rate any shared ideas and Microsoft plans on compensating content authors based on ratings and popularity, said Law. However, Microsoft has not yet released any details on the size and frequency of such awards.



The company is encouraging people not only to share the itineraries they've created using the Virtual Earth program (for instance, a bar crawl, or a complete tour of a given city's landmarks and museums) but to share with Microsoft ways of improving the program. The VE community will have a page specifically for users to share suggestions for design and functionality (shown in Figure 1). Microsoft plans on using the information from this public user testing in order to rapidly update and improve the program, with an aggressive four-month ongoing release cycle.

Figure 1. Virtual Earth Community Feedback Page: Microsoft plans on using this feedback to fuel quick turnaround on improvements to the application.

Game of Leapfrog
Microsoft is hoping that a combination of a fast and easy-to-use consumer UI and the MapPoint APIs for embedding VE features into private and Web-based third-party applications, will put it back out in front of Google, which earned much praise for its speedy Ajax-based Google Maps application. VE uses MSN Search, Map Point technologies, and geographical information from TerraServer-USA to fuel robust features that allow end users to organize and distribute complex location-based information to friends and coworkers without using multiple applications and browser windows.

While MapPoint officials we spoke to said that Google, as a search company, isn't really a competitor to Microsoft, the company will still need gain back some of the mind share of those developers who will use public APIs from one company or the other to build localized applications. The concept of Virtual Earth is larger than a mere search engine, said Law, who cited the VE slogan “Global Access to Local Knowledge.” Microsoft plans to take the usefulness of mapping technologies one step further by using the VE and Developer Resource communities to create centers for knowledge-sharing that offer compensation for ideas of proven value.

Figure 2. The Points of Interest Search: Here, Virtual Earth shows the location of all the toy stores in the Boston metro area. This could easily show all the hotels or coffee houses.
The best way to get acquainted with Virtual Earth’s capabilities is to use an example: Say you have a group of college buddies in town, staying at various local hotels. The Virtual Earth “Location Finder” uses Wi-Fi access points to triangulate your location. An aerial appears, with an icon showing your location in the center. The map is labeled with an overlay of road networks and point-of-interest information. Typing in the addresses of your friends' hotels, you can quickly see exactly how far apart everyone is.

Normally, to plan your Friday night and Saturday activities, you would have to open at least two browsers: one to a mapping program and one to any of the numerous city guides or event listings. Finding out which restaurants are the most centrally located, then deciding upon a restaurant would take a lot of research; you'd have to find the neighborhood, get the restaurant listings, and keep going back and forth between the two Web pages to see where each restaurant is in relation to your friends' hotels. This scenario is made even more complicated if your friends want to see a movie or go to a show—forcing the need to optimize locations among three data points: hotels, restaurants, and theaters. VE effectively combines the restaurant/theater listings and the mapping functionality into one program (see Figure 2).

Figure 3. The Scratch Pad: The Scratch Pad allows you to save locations, creating an savable itinerary that you can then share with anyone you choose.
You can tell Virtual Earth to find all the restaurants in the area shown on your aerial map. Icons appear and scrolling over them shows the business information. Clicking on your chosen restaurant engages the “Scratch Pad” feature, which saves your restaurant choice on a dialog box to the right of the screen (see Figure 3). Next it finds all the movie theaters near your restaurant that are showing the movie you want to see. Add as many event locations as you'd like: Virtual Earth finds the available options and you place your choice on your Scratch Pad. Now, you’ve created an itinerary that you can email to your friends or post on your blog for their approval.

The Permalink control captures an interactive screenshot of your search, which you can also email to your friends. This allows you map out a preferred travel route, thus showing everyone the exact route you will be taking to get to each location—enabling each of them to know where the group will be, when, and how to get there.

Virtual Earth is only available for geographic locations in the United States. The next beta release, scheduled for later this year, is slated to include bird's eye imagery that depicts cities, landmarks, and points of interest at a 45-degree-angle. And if Microsoft has its way, perhaps some other yet-to-be-announced features from third-party developers, too.



   
Erin Gannon is an Associate Editor at DevX.
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