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Originally published Thursday, December 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft offers new window to the world

Starting today, Windows Live Local will allow users to point to locations on a map to get directions to places.

Seattle Times technology reporter

A few months ago, the pilot of a small Cessna flew low in the skies over Seattle, taking pictures from 3,000 feet.

The images were detailed enough to show people on tennis courts and the colors of cars on the street. Starting today, those images — and others collected from a dozen or so other cities — will be available on a new online search and mapping service from Microsoft.

The service, called Windows Live Local, is Microsoft's latest move in its broadening step-for-step rivalry with other Internet powerhouses, Google in particular. Online maps themselves aren't serious moneymakers, but they are becoming necessary for search engines and other Web sites drilling into information at the local level.

Microsoft had been calling its mapping service MSN Virtual Earth, which it debuted in test form this summer. The team behind it previously developed Microsoft's MapPoint technology, which helped people find locations and directions online.

Now, the company is giving the service a new name and folding it into Windows Live, a broad-ranging generation of online services largely supported by advertising. Windows Live, now in test, will include e-mail, blogging, instant messaging and Web-searching programs.

The most striking difference in Windows Live Local is the improved imagery used for maps and directions. Previously, the service used aerial views of cities overlaid with road networks. Now, it will offer more precise images collected by a business partner, Rochester, N.Y.-based Pictometry International.

Pictometry planes fly over the most populated areas of the country, taking up to 12 different views from a 40-degree angle, said Dante Pennacchia, a senior vice president at the company.

The planes take pictures of large areas at 4,500 feet and drop to 3,000 feet for detailed images.

So far, Pictometry has pictures covering about 28 percent of the U.S. population and aims to capture 80 percent in the next few years. The flight schedule is especially aggressive now because the leaves are off of trees, making it easier to see the land, according to Microsoft.

Pictometry has partners in Europe, and plans to move international pictures into Windows Live Local. The images are refreshed about every two years.

Windows Live Local, online at local.live.com, allows users to point to a location on a map and get directions to that place. Some online mapping services require an address or name of a place.

Users can also add online "pushpins" to maps and tag the pushpins with text. The maps can also be e-mailed to others.

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"We expect that this will be very viral in nature as people who use this site start sending it to other people," said Tom Bailey, a marketing director in Microsoft's MSN division.

Users can also share map views through Microsoft's instant-messaging program. No competitor offers that ability, said Greg Sterling, an analyst with The Kelsey Group, a research firm in Princeton, N.J.

The mapping service "really sort of puts Microsoft in the running in a way that they weren't, at least in the local-search game," he said.

Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and other competitors are moving quickly into local search, a potentially lucrative business that gives users information about a specific area, such as sushi restaurants in Bellevue. Local search promises to open up more sources of revenue by allowing restaurants and retailers to advertise directly to a target audience.

Maps are key to a local-search strategy, analysts say.

MapQuest is the most popular online mapping site, with 40 million unique users in the month of June, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. MSN's map site had about 3.4 million users and Google's had 8.3 million users. Yahoo!'s maps were tracked as part of the Yahoo! Local channel, which had 22.4 million users.

MSN and Google saw more usage after introducing mapping programs this summer, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

MapQuest doesn't have as many features as some of its rivals, and its popularity shows that people aren't looking for sophisticated mapping tools, said Allen Weiner, an analyst at Gartner. But that will likely change as people become aware of everything they'll be able to do with maps, he added.

Weiner said he expects Microsoft to integrate the maps across numerous features of Windows Live and in other products, such as the Outlook e-mail program.

"Your ability to make a schedule of where you want to go, how you want to get from here to there and maybe some e-mails you want along with it is powerful stuff," he said. "I think that's probably the endgame of this new Windows Live, is to bring all those together."

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

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