Google, Microsoft vie for Earth domination

A new version of Google Earth is imminent, but Microsoft has plans to beef up its rival application Virtual Earth.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

An updated version of Google Earth is to be released on Tuesday night, adding a timescale to the basic version of the Web-based geospatial application.

The feature--in which a slider is used to scroll through time--was previously available only to users of the premium version, Google Earth Pro, and now features a simplified interface.

Michael Jones, the chief technology officer for Google Earth, demonstrated the feature at the Association for Geographic Information event, AGI2006, in London, on Tuesday. Jones showed how scientists, who had tracked the movements of a whale shark using GPS, had then mapped the creature's path using the application.

Business uses include fleet tracking, or mapping the movements of transport infrastructure, according to Google. Jones also described how the new version would enable people to track all of the geostationary satellites orbiting the earth.

More than 30,000 developers around the world are using the Google Earth application programming interface, and there have been 100 million downloads of Google Earth, Google claims.

Google Earth's tendency to use photographs that are often out of date would not diminish the usefulness of the time-tracking functionality, as the basic application was primarily a tool to provide context, Jones explained.

"(The function) allows you to scroll through data layered on top of that," he said on Tuesday. "We're just trying to provide context to understand it."

Google Earth received a major database update at the end of last week, introducing 15-centimeter resolution for the first time to areas such as the Netherlands and Japan.

Microsoft was also represented at the event by Vincent Tao, director of MSN Virtual Earth--the software giant's rival application to Google Earth. Tao highlighted recent improvements made to Virtual Earth, in particular the ability to view certain areas from an oblique "birds-eye view." This addition was made to certain U.K. areas this week, he added.

An angled perspective could provide a more detailed and recognizable view of buildings and monuments than a straight overhead angle. Google's application provides angled views, mainly through users' models of buildings and geographical features.

Microsoft also demonstrated another new feature for Virtual Earth, where a virtual car can be driven through certain U.S. cities. Some car manufacturers had already contacted Microsoft to discuss putting their concept cars into the simulation, Tao said.

"I can bet the owners of (the shops seen as the user drives past) really want to put their logos there," Tao said, adding that the feature provided many opportunities for advertising.

MSN Virtual Earth was also being integrated into Outlook and Windows Live Messenger, said Tao, and users would soon be able to overlay floor plans into the application.

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