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Geospatial Tools Mean Business

Microsoft’s Virtual Earth and SQL Spatial bring geospatial technology to the enterprise.

The ability to build location-based services into applications is emerging as a key battleground between Microsoft, Google Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and others. But it also promises over time to have a greater impact on developers of enterprise apps.

Windows and .NET developers are seeing an increased emphasis of support for geospatial data types in Microsoft's online services, as well as the forthcoming release of SQL Server 2008.

Leading Microsoft's geospatial effort until now was John Curlander, general manager of the Microsoft Virtual Earth Business unit. Curlander was set to give a keynote address at the third annual GeoWeb conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, late last month, but William B. Gail, director of strategic development in Microsoft's Virtual Earth Group, took his place on the program instead.

Before moving on, Curlander last month talked up Microsoft's efforts to extend its geospatial efforts into the enterprise. "We're early in the evolution of the geospatial marketplace even though it seems as though things are taking off," Curlander told . "But both Microsoft and Google are making big investments in the platform architecture for geospatial applications."

Microsoft's two biggest geospatial investments to date are Virtual Earth and SQL Spatial. Virtual Earth is Microsoft's integrated set of services for developing what the company calls "dynamic online experiences" through maps and rich geospatial imagery. Microsoft is providing developers with tools and online support for this "platform" through the Microsoft Developer Network.

Taking on the Enterprise
Curlander pointed out that geospatial technology is not just about cool pictures from space or the accelerating market for location-based services -- it's also about organizing data. Geospatial technology is actually providing a soon-to-be-indispensable way to visualize and understand data, Curlander said, and added that he predicts it will gain momentum in business intelligence applications.

Microsoft's SQL Spatial, the spatial functionality that's being added into SQL Server 2008, isn't generating as much buzz as Virtual Earth, Curlander admitted, but it's likely to impact developers more in the long run. According to Microsoft, SQL Spatial will give users of SQL Server comprehensive spatial support designed to enable organizations to consume, use and extend location-based data through spatial-enabled applications.

"It'll have what I'd call 'GIS primitives,' so they can do some analytics with data contained inside SQL Server, and merge the backdrop imagery with the enterprise data," Curlander explained.

Quote by John Curlander

Calling on Developers
Geospatial technology is presenting developers with some new opportunities. "The question for developers is, increasingly, "how do you take all the enterprise data, organize it spatially and make it available internally to an organization's decision makers so that they better understand the data they have?" Curlander said.

Ron Lake, chairman and CEO of Galdos Systems Inc. and committee chair of this year's GeoWeb conference, says the various XML standards for geographic information representation are catalysts for developers. Among them are Keyhole Markup Language (KML) for mapping and Geography Markup Language (GML) for geographic content, "and the tools that are starting to emerge around those standards," Lake says.

KML is an XML-based language for managing the display of 3-D geospatial data in Google Maps and Google Earth. GML is a modeling language for geographic systems.

Traveling with Online Maps

In a market where online travel-planning services are a pure commodity, trying to break the mold isn't simple. One new player is hoping that some still-experimental technology from Microsoft will give it that edge.

Microsoft last month said that its research and development team is collaborating with developers at PlanetEye Inc. to create an interactive map connected to geotagged photographs of hotels, attractions and restaurants.

PlanetEye's interactive map is powered by Microsoft's World-Wide Media Exchange (WWMX), a centralized database of digital photographs tagged by their shooting location. WWMX is an in-process project from Microsoft Research's Interactive Visual Media Group.

Microsoft has created several WWMX-based applications, including a WWMX Location Stamper. As the name implies, the application embeds location information into the EXIF tags of .JPEG images. The user then manually drags the image thumbnail onto the map, or the location can be inferred from GPS-tracking information stored in one or more .GPX files. The photos can be linked to MapPoint or TerraServer maps on the WWMX site using the GPS coordinates. The data is then displayed as a series of colored dots scattered across a map of the world -- as the company says, "showing viewers where to look for images that tell people's stories."

The WWMX Location Stamper is downloadable from the Microsoft Research Web site here.

The list of other WWMX-based apps, also downloadable from the Microsoft Research site, includes: WWMX GPS Track Downloader, a utility for downloading track and waypoint information from an attached Garmin Ltd. GPS device; WWMX Travelogue, a utility that takes a set of location-stamped .JPEG photos and an optional set of GPS track files and creates an HTML page ready for transfer to a personal Web site; a WWMX Client Application, which allows users to browse the existing database of WWMX images; and a WWMX Story Viewer, which displays stories or text authored on the WWMX Client Application.

WWMX has been in the works for several years, and an early version of the PlanetEye Web site was previously available to Microsoft employees only. The beta site is now up and running.

-- John K. Waters

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance author and journalist based in Silicon Valley. His latest book is The Everything Guide to Social Media. Follow John on Twitter, read his blog on ADTmag.com, check out his author page on Amazon, or e-mail him at john@watersworks.com.


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