Sunday, July 24, 2005


VirtualEarth from MSN

MSN have launched Virtual Earth - their attempt to catch up with Google Maps.

Having tried it out for a few hours, I think they've generally missed. There are a few areas where they exceed the capabilities of Google Maps, but these are outweighed by those where they fall short.

The capability that is likely to get the most press is the fact that they show the USGS colour data at full resolution (ie at the resolution that Google Earth uses, not the reduced resolution that Google Maps currently displays). However, outside of the USGS colour areas (around 30+ US cities), they only show the black and white USGS data - which is a very poor substitute for the sometimes lower resolution, but coloured photos that Google uses. Google also has detailed coverage for many cities throughout the world, whereas Virtual Earth is limited to detailed data in the USA only.

A possible other reason to prefer VirtualEarth is it has a larger part of the screen given over to the map, since it does not reserve space alongside the map for search results.

The list of areas they fall short of Google Maps is longer:
Virtual Earth comes with what they call an API - which simply means that they have documented the URL format used to bring up a page at a specific location and zoom level etc. Unfortunately the URLs use the pipe character "|" when constructing the URLs - I've always considered this an invalid character (though the RFC may be ambiguous in this respect), and I know of plenty of tools which will not cope with such URLs - wikis for example, which often use the pipe character to separate a URL from the label a link will use. It's worth noting that its possible to separate the latitude from the longitude in the URL using a comma instead of the pipe character, but they really need to remove the pipe character altogether.

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