Microsoft gives local search a new view

Microsoft has added a new satellite view and other user features to Virtual Earth, a local search service that's been rebranded Windows Live Local.

Microsoft has added an enhanced satellite view along with other new user features to its local search product, which was rebranded this week from Virtual Earth to Windows Live Local.

Beta 2 of the search service will go live at 9:01 a.m. Pacific Standard Time Thursday at http://local.live.com, according to Microsoft. The beta includes the rebranding of the service and new zoom and "bird's eye" features to the service's satellite imagery, as reported by the IDG News Service Tuesday.

The new release also includes updates to how users can find driving directions and save search information, said Stephen Lawler, general manager of MapPoint and MSN Virtual Earth for Microsoft.

The rebranding under the Windows Live moniker also links the product to Microsoft's plan to offer a range of Web-based services to compete with rivals like Google and Yahoo. The thinking is that Web users ultimately will have a seamless Web experience when they want to link up with their social communities through applications such as search, instant-messaging and e-mail.

In fact, Microsoft is providing application programming interfaces (APIs) for Windows Live Local so third parties can build new applications that incorporate the service, Lawler said. "We fit in as the local pivot, providing global access to local knowledge," he said of the search service's place within Microsoft's Windows Live plan.

The bird's-eye view in Windows Live Local provides a 45-degree angled view, as opposed to the standard 90-degree view that orthogonal satellite images usually provide, he said. Rather than simply being able to view locations and neighborhoods by their rooftops, which does not offer a very clear idea of what the area looks like, the bird's-eye view provides an angle that allows users to see more of the location and its surrounding area, Lawler said.

Microsoft also enhanced the driving directions, pushpin and scratch-pad technology of the service. In the first beta of Virtual Earth, released in July, users could create pushpin locations on a map, but they were limited in how they could use that location for driving directions and the like, said Steve Lombardi, Virtual Earth program manager for Microsoft.

Now, users can create their own pushpins by right-clicking on a location and giving it a title, he said, demonstrating Wednesday how the new service works. Right-clicking on a pushpin-marked location also allows users to write notes about it on Windows Live Local's scratch-pad technology, and save those notes so they can be sent by e-mail or bookmarked through a browser permalink.

Microsoft plans to offer a full production version of Windows Live Local in the first half of 2006, Lombardi said. He said the company is currently expanding the geographic coverage of the service so it is on par with the coverage found in MSN's Maps and Directions search product, which covers 30 countries.

Microsoft has added the U.K. to the second beta of Windows Live Local, but plans to expand way beyond that, Lombardi said. Once Windows Live Local can provide local search information for at least as many countries as Maps and Directions, Microsoft will "remove the beta label," he said.

Microsoft also plans to enhance the kind of information that can be searched through the service to extend beyond business information and directions to specific local events, user favorites and other information from sources other than standard Yellow Pages, Lombardi said.

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