Mapping In the Virtual World: Waypoints Worth Mentioning

    May 26, 2005

Microsoft just announced the launch of their Virtual Earth service through MSN. The new mapping service gives users some unique perspectives by adding high quality Pictometry photography to the standard mapping fare. This will allow users to see storefronts whether they go looking for a McDonalds or a Hard Rock Caf.

Mapping In the Virtual World: Waypoints Worth Mentioning
Mapping In the Virtual World

Microsoft is just the latest waypoint in the expanding world of Internet map services. The leader in this geographic race remains AOL’s MapQuest service. They’ve got a huge share of the market, over 70% according to comScore Media Matrix. The others have some catching up to do. MapQuest was also used up until fairly recently as the default map service for companies like Yahoo before they created their own mapping services.

In reviewing a few systems, there are some fair differences. Right now, a lesser-known site called Map24 by Mapsolute seems to be the best based on my impressions. Map24 uses vector map data from map vendors such as Navteq, Teleatlas or AND. They have a groovy real-time, drag and zoom feature that allows users to zoom in quickly to where they want to go. The detail is great too. The further you go in, the more detail you get and while it doesn’t have pictures of store fronts like MSN’s will have, as you move your cursor over the locations it give the information you need in a block that appears over the point. The drawback is sometimes real time moves a little too quickly and you have to make some adjustments here and there if it zooms too much or too little to get you what you need. Also, when looking for some places, like Paramount’s Kings Island theme park up near Cincinnati, it didn’t list it. It listed the roads around it, but a major stopping point in the area might be worth plugging, especially since the Jack Nicklaus golf course right beside it showed up. I didn’t see a generic type of search like many of the others. I couldn’t just type in Disney World or Kings Island somewhere and it comes up.

Googlemaps, one more offering by Google isn’t bad either. Google also gets their data from map vendors such as Navteq, Teleatlas or AND. The Googlemaps service is similar to the Map24 in ease of maneuverability. It doesn’t zoom in as tight as Map24 though. Its directions aren’t bad and you can pick various options like restaurants and they show with markers on the map. As with many other Google items, it has a decent search feature tied to it so when I type in Kings Island or Disney World, it will take me straight there with a way point marker and some surrounding businesses and such. The problems is after trying this multiple times with the same location, Kings Island it brings up a Wal-Mart supercenter in Independence, Kansas. Google also offers a premium service for higher detail features based on work from their recent purchase, Keyhole.

Keyhole is both incredibly cool and a little scary. They utilize satellite imagery and 3D graphics to create some sharp looking maps and detail with a variety of industries, including real estate, defense, homeland security, etc. The detail is amazing. You can see cars in the parking lot and zero in on the baseball field down the street. That level of detail is also a drawback for some because it could certainly be used to invade privacy. It wouldn’t be that hard to zoom in on the local swimming pool or find someone sun bathing in the privacy of one’s heavily fenced back yard. While some might say this is a bit paranoid, when lots of major corporations lose large quantities of information tied to credit cards and social security numbers.

MSN’s new Virtual Earth has some promise in that realm too, utilizing those Pictometry planes and quality photography to enhance their mapping features. The current MSN mapping feature in all honesty isn’t that great. For smaller communities, there’s no detail at all. One gets some basic maps but they’re no different than a standard road atlas. Street names really weren’t there and some really small communities weren’t either. Hopefully Virtual Earth will rectify these problems. Virtual Earth will also have some privacy problems as well. The photos won’t be real time, but one has no clue what might be in those photos.

Yahoo isn’t terribly remarkable or unique either. They look very similar to MapQuest in style and function but they lack the detail. The zoom feature is scaled 1-10 and with directional tags at the corners and sides of the map to shift around the viewing area. This looks remarkably like the MapQuest feature. Their detail on finding addresses wasn’t as good as others. The address I looked for though didn’t show up in their search. They were close but they were the only one of the mapping tools I looked through that didn’t show the address I was looking for. They provided some directories and they were pretty good when mapping the local Pizza Hut. I liked that feature a little better than MapQuest but less than the Googlemap or Map24. Yahoo hasn’t really stated what the future has in store for their mapping too in light of recent work by MSN and Google.

MapQuest from AOL is the dominant map tool on the net. With well over half the market share they still control the lion’s share of the market but other map tool entities will challenge them. The tools they offer aren’t bad. The zoom feature is scaled 1-10 and the detail overall is a little tighter. They have better listings of streets than Yahoo certainly. They’ve also added directory technology in the form of their “Find It” feature. The feature is a search for whatever or wherever in this case you’re looking for. It also saves the locations for you too so when you need to go back, it won’t be a problem. This is useful if you’re in the preliminary stages of planning a trip and specific stops you want to hit. Then you can go back to them when hammering out more details. AOL is in a wait and see mode with regard to the photography and the 3D satellite imagery.

According to AOL’s Senior Communications Manager, Brian Hoyt, said, “when we get back into the game, if we do – it will be a cost effective, useful solution. I wouldn’t say we are rushing to include this feature just because others have it. We’ve learned to focus on what consumers want, which is why we’ve implemented directory technology (our Find It feature) and now superior and leading wireless services.”

Overall, the map tool market is going to grow. Bill Gates noted with announcement of the Virtual Earth toll that competition would be tight. There are certainly others beside the ones I’ve listed here too. Even Amazon is working on a search/mapping tool. As technology grows and the mapping features expand, where do things go from here? They’re already able to view pretty much wherever they want. Places are easier to find. In some ways, traditional cartography has come along way from Amerigo Vespucci traveling the oceans to map out new places no one’s ever seen but in others maybe not. We still just need a way to find efficient routes to get to where we need to go, which is what we’ve always needed.

John Stith is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.