In the battle of the interactive maps, MSN is seeking to challenge Google's satellite mapping supremacy with a suite of mapping tools that will seek to combine the best elements of satellite mapping with A9's Yellow Pages local business photography and Yahoo! Maps' layered results.
Virtual Earth, to be built on Microsoft's already strong mapping pedigree (including in mobile), will reportedly launch on MSN later this quarter. The aerial photography is apparently to be collected by a small fleet of planes, a la A9's vans, and will be added later in the year.
Virtual Earth will fundamentally be a local search tool and allow local businesses to be found on a map and located in proximity to one another — the way Yahoo! Maps permits users to find restaurants or ATMs near movie theaters, etc. It will also apparently allow users to see shots of those businesses, not simply from above.
Google Earth (an enhanced version of Keyhole with better resolution) is due out in a few weeks. Together these developments (plus some as yet unannounced) up the stakes in the mapping realm, which has quickly moved from a ho-hum driving-directions application to a powerful local search utility. It means the mapping territory, so to speak, will only continue to become richer and more interactive for consumers.
It also means that mapping as a species of local search is now likely to mirror the frenzy of competition and product development that has characterized the rest of the search marketplace.
There are some provocative things in store in the coming 12 months for mapping; and this entire arena could well become extremely interesting. I think we'll also see some baby steps — Yahoo! has already taken some — toward fuller monetization of mapping as a new local advertising platform. To that end, MSN's Virtual Earth will contain local advertising out of the gate (or should I say Gates?).
The leader in the space, MapQuest (scroll for traffic data), has publicly taken the position that it's very happy with its current approach, which eschews the bells and whistles of Google's satellite mapping. Yet I believe that, despite enormous brand loyalty to MapQuest, there will eventually be consumer pressure to do more with its interface. People seem to love the Google mapping UIs, even though Google Maps don't offer the full range of capabilities that Yahoo! Maps do. There's novelty, but also utility (easy to navigate, etc.).
It's very clear that online mapping is a visual medium and one shouldn't minimize the importance of a pretty (yet functional) interface.