Microsoft launches Virtual Earth

Microsoft’s new Virtual Earth was launched today in Beta form. Though sooner than expected, this launch is an apparent response to Google’s new Hybrid View in its competing Google Maps service, which trumps the labelled aerial photo feature that had previously been touted as unique to Virtual Earth.

Virtual Earth is a direct competitor to Google Maps, providing a free pannable, zoomable, DHTML-powered view of the world that can be switched between flat maps and satellite imagery.

The user interface provided by Virtual Earth is more innovative than Google Maps’, with the map view occupying most of the browser window, with floating tool windows appearing over the map. The interface allows you to pan around by dragging the map directly, or by clicking and dragging away from the floating compass in the corner (Microsoft calls this “game mode”). You can also make use of your mouse’s scroll wheel to zoom in and out. Zooming is done with a spiffy animated effect, stretching the currently-displayed imagery to the new scale before loading the new imagery in its place. Also included is a “Locate me” feature, which does its best to pinpoint your current location either using your IP address or via an ActiveX control.

In playing with Virtual Earth in Firefox, I came across a couple of UI bugs related to the mouse scroll wheel (the map view would appearently scroll up or down in addition to zooming in or out), but for a rushed release it’s pretty solid in its cross-browser support. Less solid was the server providing imagery for the maps — even on a highspeed ADSL connection in North America, I encountered many broken images where tiles of imagery should have been. In most cases, zooming out and then back in would get those images to load correctly on the second try.

Where Virtual Earth pales in comparison to Google Maps is in the quality of its satellite imagery and international coverage. Though major US centres have decent imagery, the rest of the world seems to only be imaged at about 1km per pixel–useless for navigation purposes. Additionally, high-resolution satellite imagery without labels is inexplicably displayed in black-and-white, something I’d expect Microsoft to address pretty quickly in an update to the service.

Road maps are excellent for North America, but the rest of the world only gets labels for major cities. No doubt this too will be improved over time.

DHTML-wise, Virtual Earth is certainly more impressive than Google Maps. But if you ask me Microsoft has made a few sacrifices in usability to implement the bells and whistles of its interface. To a DHTML-savvy power user like me the interface certainly appeals, but I’m not sure my parents could figure it out.

Update: The Virtual Earth team has launched a blog to keep people up-to-date on developments with Virtual Earth. Meanwhile, Via Virtual Earth seems to be the first third-party site dedicated to the service.

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