Virtual Earth becomes Windows Live Local this week

Microsoft plans to official launch this week Windows Live Local, an enhancement to its Virtual Earth online mapping service.

Microsoft plans to launch this week Windows Live Local, a new version of its Virtual Earth aerial image service, according to company sources.

The company hopes the new service will provide a significant boost to its local search service on the MSN.com portal, which competes against Google, Yahoo and others. It currently offers aerial and satellite images from Virtual Earth, but Windows Live Local will take the aerial imagery to another level.

Using images and technology from Pictometry International, a specialist in this area that signed a licensing deal with Microsoft earlier this year, Windows Live Local will give users images of a much higher resolution and quality than Virtual Earth. Users will be able to zoom in much closer and also tilt the view to see buildings and streets from different angles, and not just directly from above. Virtual Earth is able to do this, but Windows Live Local's ability is more sophisticated and extensive.

As Virtual Earth is today, Windows Live Local will be integrated with MSN's local search index, to complement its business listings, maps and driving directions with aerial images. Windows Live Local will also have what Microsoft calls "community features" to let users share, save and annotate Windows Live Local images.

Last week, MSN Local Search General Manager Erik Jorgensen, discussed Windows Live Local at The Kelsey Group's Interactive Local Media conference, and showed screen shots of it. Kelsey Group analyst Greg Sterling said Jorgensen told the audience that Windows Live Local would be officially released this week. A posting Monday at the official Virtual Earth blog (http://spaces.msn.com/members/virtualEarth/PersonalSpace.aspx?_c=) stated that the next version of that service is "indeed around the corner."

"Virtual Earth has become part of the Windows Live Family and will be known as Windows Live Local (WLL)," the posting reads. "Keep your eyes open -- you should be able to start enjoying features like Birds Eye imagery and User pushpins in just a few days."

Based on the presentation he saw at The Kelsey Group conference, Sterling said: "It will make [MSN local search] very competitive." Sterling posted a write-up of the Microsoft executive's presentation in The Kelsey Group's blog (href="http://blog.kelseygroup.com/kelsey/index.php?/weblog/more/local_search_percent_and_windows_live_local/)

The ability to view aerial images at different angles is an important one for local search services to have, another analyst said. "I find the top-down view to be inadequate. I don't believe it gives consumers enough recognizable frame of reference. I would presume an angular view, a sideways view, would provide a greater perspective and make it easier, from ground level when you're actually there, to identify landmarks," said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox.

Among the major search engines, MSN was the last to provide a local search service, unveiling it in June of this year, at a time when Google, Yahoo, America Online and Ask Jeeves already had it.

Still, many Internet users don't even know what local search is and aren't aware of the services that are available, The Kelsey Group's Sterling said. "Microsoft isn't too late to the party," Sterling said.

Microsoft didn't immediately reply to requests for comment placed through its public relations agency Waggener Edstrom.

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