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A Brave New World--Mapped for Your Convenience

by: Susan Esparza, July 2005

Long ago, at least in web terms, there were very few free mapping services and their accuracy was about on par with their usability. Slow, buggy and frustrating, early online maps did their best but that was about all you could say for them. Mapquest was the best of a sad breed and often took strange and circuitous routes to get to a destination. It was, needless to say, terribly frustrating.

Today geographically challenged web users are almost spoiled for choice. With the release of Google Maps slick interface and easy-to-use controls as well as its integration with Google Local, the mapping landscape became more accessible. Since then the digitally mapped world has really started to heat up as Microsoft promised then released in beta a rival to Google Maps (or perhaps to Google Earth.)

MSN's Virtual Earth features a wider viewing area than Google's and allows for a scratchpad or blogging directly from the interface but in some cases the data (from Terra Server) is woefully out of date. In New York, the shadows of the Twin Towers still stretch to the river. Those looking for Apple's Cupertino headquarters are out of luck, Infinite Loop is an empty field. In other areas, MSN outshines Google, including at Google's own headquarters.

Both MSN and Google use data from NavTeq for their data but Google also draws on Tele Atlas. Both companies integrate with their respective local products, enabling a consumer to find the nearest pizza place or hotel. With personalized and local searches surging ahead in popularity, these are key areas for all search engines to focus on and improvements continue across the board.

But the really exciting innovations going on in mapping aren't the mapping products themselves, it's the mash-ups developed by the community of third parties who have grown up around the mapping products. Using the Google Maps API, Google Maps has been integrated with other databases into dozens of interesting and often useful tools. Consider the clever apartment ratings overlay or the cheap gas locator. At ChicagoCrimes.Org, police reports are used to map out the places where crimes occurred, giving an apartment hunter or tourist an idea of the high-crime areas of the city. Some tools are merely amusing; consider, for example, the strangely addictive which seeks out interesting images and places on the globe. There are groups, blogs and communities dedicated to discovering new ways to put the API into use and the developers show nothing but enthusiasm for the projects.

It is these developers that MSN would do well to court. Google has built up a great deal of good will by inviting creativity from third parties and actively encourages use of their technology for other non-profit tools. Doing so puts their maps in front of a wider audience and confirms their reputation as a company dedicated to innovation and doing no evil.

If MSN wants to beat Google at its own game, the first step is gaining goodwill, unfortunately no longer one of Microsoft's strong points. If they invite and encourage innovation, without the smug, 'see how kind we are to invite you in' tone that predominates so much of MSN's communications, they will be on the right track. The time has come for Microsoft to cease promising advantages in the future and actually deliver the superior products they forecast.