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Originally published July 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 25, 2005 at 3:12 PM

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Microsoft's Virtual Earth latest to connect map and search

This is the year that online maps and Web search come together. Microsoft is launching an early version of MSN Virtual Earth, a mapping...

Seattle Times technology reporter

This is the year that online maps and Web search come together.

Microsoft is launching an early version of MSN Virtual Earth, a mapping service that closely ties to its Web search engine and its Web log program. The release, at 9 p.m. yesterday, is the company's answer to a mapping service from search-sector leader Google that debuted earlier this year.

Virtual Earth got the attention of Chairman Bill Gates earlier this year, and as a result was fast-tracked in development at Microsoft. The team behind it previously developed Microsoft's MapPoint technology, which helped people find locations and directions online.

Microsoft recently moved the MapPoint team to MSN's search unit from its previous home in the company's Mobile and Embedded Devices division — an acknowledgement that search and maps are becoming increasingly important to each other.

Virtual Earth, at virtualearth.msn.com, offers aerial views of cities overlaid with road networks and other information. It has new navigation tools that allow users to pan and drag maps.

Because Virtual Earth uses Yellow Pages and White Pages directories, users can do specific searches for "restaurants" and other categories in the maps, save the results and e-mail them or copy them into a document.

The search results can also be posted on a blog in the MSN Spaces service.

Microsoft is also offering a free, downloadable application that senses nearby wireless-access points to determine a user's location and shows it on the Virtual Earth map.

The application won't have pinpoint accuracy, but its results should be within 250 meters of a user's location, said Tom Bailey, a director of marketing with the Virtual Earth team.

Business traveler could use the application, called Location Finder, at a hotel to find nearby restaurants, he said.

In future releases, Virtual Earth may allow users to create their own layers of the map — such as one showing the best Moroccan restaurants in Seattle. The users would be able to post those, along with reviews of restaurants and other places, on the Virtual Earth site.

Microsoft is hoping Virtual Earth becomes a destination for users, said Bailey said.

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"The real key for us is to deliver a really rich, immersive, local search experience that causes people not only to stop by, but really begin to use this in their day-to-day life," he said.

Virtual Earth only works with U.S.-based locations, Microsoft said. Other regions of the world are expected in future versions.

Denver-based MapQuest, a subsidiary of America Online, has been the leader in the mapping category for years.

MSN's mapping service ranks third, behind an offering from Yahoo!

Microsoft hasn't paid a large amount of attention to mapping until recently, Bailey said. But the confluence of search and maps spurred the company into action.

Search engines have been looking for opportunities to increase advertising sales, and one way to do so is by targeting what is known as "local" search, analysts say.

Such searches show a user the nearest coffee shops or gas stations, for example.

"Maps entered into search in sort of this really big way that we saw this year because the search engines are trying to position themselves as a way to find anything and everything," said Gary Stein, an analyst with Jupiter Research.

Google took a significant step in making maps more useful, Stein added. The company launched its satellite mapping site in February at maps.google.com.

The site also offers driving directions and markers that point to locations of search results.

MSN's Virtual Earth is a direct competitor to Google Maps.

Last month, Google released Google Earth, a free downloadable application based on technology from Keyhole, a company it acquired last year.

Google Earth allows users to dramatically zoom in on satellite-based street maps and "fly" over a map of the country. It also animates directions from one place to another, zooming over the course of travel.

"It's a really interesting time for mapping," said John Hanke, the former chief executive of Keyhole and general manager of Google's Keyhole unit. "This is the second wave of mapping on the Internet."

Google has allowed Web enthusiasts to use its mapping technology on their own sites, as long as the sites are freely available online. Numerous homegrown efforts have sprung up on the Web as a result.

Microsoft said it will make the same allowances with Virtual Earth, and has set up a how-to Web site for developers at www.viavirtualearth.com.

If online maps become popular, they will become a front door to local search, said Greg Sterling, an analyst with the Kelsey Group.

"The Internet, broadly speaking, is moving in this direction of more and more rich visual information," he said. "And that's what maps are part of."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

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