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Where in the World?

I'm at Microsoft TechEd in Boston, a cornucopia of computers, applications of all types, networks, and technology in general. Not since the heyday of COMDEX has there been a larger and more eclectic collection of technology under one roof. Thanks to the fact that the new Boston Convention Center is within commuting distance of my home, I am able to spend some time enjoying the energy of 13,000 people focused on this technology.

I've always had an interest in maps and geography. Despite being digitally connected to the world, I have a lifelong fascination for knowing where I am. It goes well beyond that, in fact. In my youth my family never traveled, so I used maps to travel in my imagination around the world. Today, I am somewhat better traveled, but still spend downtime browsing maps as others browse the news headlines.

So I loved Google Earth when it first became available. I could see not only the layout of all of the places I had visited and wanted to visit, but also the physical buildings (at least the roofs), the streets, and even the traffic on the street. With few exceptions, it didn't even bother me that the photos were in many cases several years old (they show only a construction site where the completed Boston Convention Center now resides in South Boston, for example).

I sat in on a lunchtime session today on Microsoft Virtual Earth, a part of the Windows Live hosted application and service site (local.live.com). When Microsoft first announced Virtual Earth, I couldn't help but feel that the company was simply copying an idea conceived of by Google. And doing so in a second-rate fashion.

The former may be true, but Microsoft delivers on its reputation of taking existing ideas and improving upon them. Virtual Earth combines both traditional online maps with aerial and satellite photos to provide an experience that takes you seamlessly from maps to photos as you zoom in on a location. And Virtual Earth seems to have more high-resolution photos than its Google counterpart.

The Virtual Earth user interface is a bit clunky compared to Google Earth, but it is delivered entirely within the browser, so that's to be expected. It represents a difference in philosophy rather than quality.

Where Microsoft has excelled is with the ability to enable developers to easily build applications that make use of Virtual Earth services. The API is well-defined and easy to use from Visual Studio. It includes tools that make it possible to add a great deal of value to a geographic application. For example, you can take existing custom maps, such as subway route maps, and overlay them onto Virtual Earth maps, in about 20 minutes with no programming skills you can present a Virtual Earth view that incorporates that custom data. I can't wait to try this with, for example, a Boston T (the city subway system) route map.

In short, expect to see me talk in the future about some of my own applications that use Virtual Earth services. For information on the future of Virtual Earth, the presenters provided a link that lets anyone sample services currently under development. Visit preview.local.live.com.

In a larger sense, I can only conclude that Google needs a conference that is the equivalent of TechEd. You learn how to develop geographic applications using Google Earth by looking for online resources. With Virtual Earth, you can attend a TechEd session and pick up enough to get started. Google gets plenty of exposure already, but this would be a still further boost to its technology.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 06/13/2006 at 1:15 PM


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