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Microsoft brings Virtual Earth to the UK

Microsoft is bullish about taking on Google Earth in the UK, claiming its integration with other applications will appeal to businesses
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Microsoft has launched the UK version of its Virtual Earth Platform, a set of online mapping services aimed at customer-facing businesses such as retail stores, estate agencies and the tourist industry.

The service can be combined with Windows Live Local to enable businesses to offer customers local search, support for address lookups and driving directions. Microsoft says it is determined to take on Google Earth, which offers a similar set of online mapping services.

"We absolutely want to serve a richer set of tools than Google," said Peter Williams, international marketing lead for Virtual Earth. "For business customers, we are aiming to supply the richest set of tools, to provide an immersive experience for their customers."

Virtual Earth will have oblique, or "bird's-eye", imagery of properties and premises. Microsoft's European partner for aerial photography is Blom, which is currently using 12 planes to photograph locations. Fifteen percent of the area inside the M25 orbital motorway is currently covered. Microsoft has a target of covering 80 percent of the European population by 2008.

Expanded features in the UK version launched on Wednesday include integration with Windows Live Messenger. Remote users can see and interact with the same map in a chat session. The Collections functionality, which enables users to create lists of favourite locations, can now be saved onto a "scratchpad" with uploaded photos.

"Our integration story is much better in comparison with Google," Williams said.

Microsoft plans to offer UK users integration with Outlook, in line with the US version, at some point in the near future. The US English Outlook add-in, launched on Wednesday in the US, enables users to embed maps and driving directions in calendar events.

Microsoft is also working on offering UK customers the real-time traffic data capability launched on Wednesday for US customers. Microsoft "didn't feel it necessary to line all of the UK [third party data] providers up at once," said Williams.

UK developers can take the core hosted service and build solutions on top, or embed a mapping capability into their own Web pages using an API (application programming interface). The Collections can be customised, and aspects of driving directions can be highlighted using Ajax (Asynchronous Javascript and XML) for images, and .NET for button controls.

Virtual Earth will be sold as a transaction-based Web service. Microsoft business customers will pay per transaction, each transaction being a download of eight tiles. Microsoft will offer packages of transactions, and the cost will be based on the number bought — for example, a package of 100,000 transactions will cost more per transaction than a package of 1,000,000.

European governments and government institutions are interested in using Virtual Earth as a tool for the general population, to provide information on local events such as floods, according to Williams.

"We're looking to expand beyond the US and the UK, and we're on a schedule to do that," said Williams.

Microsoft UK had no specific plans to collaborate with European intelligence agencies in the same vein as its collaboration with the National Geospace-Intelligence Agency in the US.

Google declined to respond on Microsoft's claims, or to comment on how it plans to evolve Google Earth to combat the emergence of such a major competitor.

"Google focuses on providing the best user experience possible, so we welcome any innovations to that same end," a Google spokeswoman told ZDNet UK.

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