Explore the world from your desk
Google and Microsoft are both testing ambitious new mapping programs. Beware: Even guys who are genetically incapable of asking for directions will be addicted.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – MY FRIEND RICHARD has out-of-body experiences in which his spirit soars over landscapes near and far, peering down at cities and people and mountains and lakes while his body remains safely tucked in his bed. I've never had one of those days, but thanks to MSN Virtual Earth and Google Earth, two new Internet-based, three-dimensional mapping and search services, I'm coming pretty close. And soon you, too, will be able to fly around the world looking down on streets and buildings while keeping the rear part of your body planted in front of your broadband-connected PC.

Even in their current prerelease forms, the free test versions of MSN Virtual Earth (virtualearth.msn.com) and Google Earth (earth.google.com) demonstrate how mapmaking has been transformed in wondrous ways by the convergence of three-dimensional mapping technologies, satellite and aerial photography, powerful computers, search engines, databases, and the Internet. Both Google and Microsoft say they'll formally launch the services by the end of the year, and going on a trip--either physically or metaphysically--will never be the same.

Given the escalating rivalry between Microsoft and Google, it's ironic that the advanced features of Google's program require users to download a special Google Earth Windows application, while Microsoft's MSN Virtual Earth (like Google) is an entirely web-based service that works not just with Microsoft's Internet Explorer but also with rival browsers. What is the world coming to?

More amazing, both of these mapping applications are so cool that even men who are genetically incapable of asking for directions will spend hours and hours planning their travels in the most exquisite detail.

Say you're making your first business trip to Manhattan. With Google Earth or MSN Virtual Earth, you can type in the address of the office you'll be visiting and, zooming in on the computer screen, see either the location on a street map or the actual building in a satellite photograph, as if you were flying just a few hundred feet overhead. Then a single click superimposes street maps on the photo maps, along with street names and arrows showing which are one-way streets.

Using simple onscreen or keyboard navigation controls, you can easily scroll the map in any direction and zoom in and out, zeroing in to see details as fine as the Patriot missile batteries on top of government buildings, or as expansive as the earth seen from space. Once you've identified an area of interest, type "hotels," "sushi," or "ATM," and the locations show up as flags or push-pins on the map. Click on the nearest one, and you'll see, for instance, the hotel's name, address, and phone number, or a review of the restaurant. Lawyers, pizzas, sports stadiums, barbers--seek, and ye shall find.

With MSN Virtual Earth, which eventually will replace the current MSN MapPoint Maps and Directions service, multiple searches can be layered and favorite spots saved on a list called a scratchpad. There's even a button to send your customized maps to your personal blog, allowing the world to see and retrace, say, all the bars you remember visiting the night before. And if you're going on a trip and wondering just how far your hotel is from the park, with Google Earth one can even fly along a route in helicopter mode, getting a bird's-eye view of your trip before walking or driving it.

Since both of these new mapping services are in beta, or prerelease mode, it's unfair to quibble about their occasional rough edges and annoying quirks. But in general, Google Earth appears to have the more extensive set of maps and features at this time. (Neither service uses real-time imagery, and some of the maps and images are months or even years old. MSN Virtual Earth, for example, still shows the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center casting their long morning shadows onto the Hudson River.) Google Earth also uses a combination of aerial and satellite imagery, combined with local street maps and Google-like business listings. In my tests Google Earth's photo images appeared crisper than MSN's, and zooming in, out, and around appeared to be much snappier.

Both services are almost entirely domestic at this point; Google has a few foreign cities, but neither service can be considered comprehensive yet. Microsoft has been building a worldwide mapping system called TerraServer (www.terraserver-usa.com) for nearly a decade, so one can expect Virtual Earth to go global before too long. Lately it has been working with a company called Pictometry International, which uses low-flying airplanes instead of satellites to photograph buildings and roads at a 45-degree angle, offering even greater levels of detail. The Pictometry images of major cities will be incorporated into MSN Virtual Earth later this year as a feature called Eagle Eye, which opens a magnifying lens over a map and allows the viewer to swoop down for close-ups of specific buildings or landmarks. (Not to worry if you're sunbathing au naturel: While it is possible to see tiny people on the MSN and Google maps, only the U.S. military has space cameras powerful enough to see whether or not you're wearing a swimsuit.)

Even if you have no intention of going anywhere, both Google Earth and Virtual Earth promise endless hours of fun and exploration. Just for kicks I searched for "One Infinite Loop" in Cupertino, Calif., the main address for Apple Computer. The Google map showed a detailed satellite view of the main Apple campus. The same search on MSN Virtual Earth, though, showed only a vacant lot, as if Microsoft bulldozers had erased Apple from the face of the earth. Was it mean-spirited? No, Microsoft says, just a really outdated map.

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