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Virtual Earth or Google Earth?

Yesterday Microsoft included 3D buildings from 15 cities in Virtual Earth, with the ability to fly through those buildings as though you were playing flight simulator. While Google Earth has had 3D buildings for quite a while, they have not been as lifelike as though available from Visual Earth. I downloaded the Microsoft plug-in for using 3D images, and spent some time as both an end user and developer applying this technology.

Some are saying that this feature, along with the ability to display hybrid maps, propels Visual Earth ahead of Google Earth in the business of working with aerial views of geographic areas. However, I am not sure that it is a race, or that one of the other is winning, or that it even matters.

I relish the competition between the two, because I think everyone wins. Microsoft would never have put this emphasis on aerial displays and mapping had not Google done it first. And Google has shown the ability to innovate in ways that are both surprising and profitable. Both are free, although both also incorporate advertising (a recent article said that Virtual Earth had no advertising, but I found a lifelike real estate ad right smack in the middle of the Fenway in Boston).

As for displaying maps and aerial photos, both alternatives have characteristics I like. I like Google Earth for the full screen displays, and the community that is constantly delivering surprising content in the way of photos, insights, and specific geographic features. Some complain that Virtual Earth works only with Internet Explorer, but I have multiple browsers loaded on my system, and am not religious about using them when one or the other is better or more appropriate for a given task. And I do like the easy ability to create, save, and share unique Virtual Earth views with others.

Google Earth has gotten quite slow on my 512MB system when I load up on additional data plug-ins, which is most of the time. It is unrealistic for me to be using Google Earth on this system with other substantive applications at the same time. However, I found that the 3D building plug-in with Visual Earth also slowed down this system, so it is not clear yet whether I am seeing better performance with one or the other.

As a developer, I more readily understand how to create a mapping application with Virtual Earth than I do with Google Earth. The clear and concise API documentation on Virtual Earth probably has a lot to do with that, but that is a personal impression rather than an objective judgment of the comparative merits of programming each.

So I am happy to see both Google Earth and Virtual Earth. And I am especially happy to see such rapid and dramatic advances in geographic and mapping technologies. I don't care who is driving those advances.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 11/09/2006

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