Gates unveils MSN Virtual Earth

Microsoft plans to launch a mapping and satellite service to complement its upcoming local search index.

Microsoft Corp.'s MSN division will add to its search engine in about two weeks a local search index for finding business directory listings, and later on will enhance this local index with MSN Virtual Earth, a new free service that will pinpoint places in maps and satellite images.

MSN Virtual Earth was demonstrated for the first time on Monday at an event hosted by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates. Microsoft officials said it will become available at some point during the U.S. summer, which means it will be released at some point between June 21 and September 22.

In addition to complementing MSN's local search index, MSN Virtual Earth will let users overlay maps and satellite photos in order to create hybrid images that combine the best of both mediums, said Stephen Lawler, general manager of Microsoft's MapPoint unit.

MSN Virtual Earth will also be integrated with users' preferred e-mail application and with a single click will place links in e-mail messages to maps and images, said Steve Lombardi, a MapPoint program manager. Users will also be able to post images to their MSN Spaces Web log from within the MSN Virtual Earth interface, Lombardi said.

Users will be encouraged to provide feedback on business directory listings, so that the MSN local search service will be able to give users a sense of what a particular area is like, Lawler said.

MSN Virtual Earth uses technology from MapPoint and from Terra Server, a database of satellite images Microsoft has had for about 10 years, the officials said.

MSN Virtual Earth will also let users view aerial images not only straight down but also from an angle, so that they will be able to view not only the tops of buildings but also view them from the side, the officials said.

Local search is a gaping hole in the MSN search engine. All other major search engine providers, including Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Ask Jeeves Inc. and America Online Inc. have a local search tab on their search Web sites. As part of its local search service, Google also provides maps and satellite images, offering functionality that is similar to what Microsoft is aiming for with MSN Virtual Earth.

Local searching is becoming increasingly popular with users and online advertisers. It lets users find business listings and complementary information from a specific geographical area, while advertisers are able to target their ads only at those who are looking for services and products in their vicinity.

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