Microsoft has released a new version of Virtual Earth (2D and 3D) tonight (see press release). I’ve already written about the really nice new Bird’s Eye support which now works in the 3D view. Buried in the press release is that the new release also supports two significant elements related to Google Earth:
- Microsoft now supports search results of user-generated content. This of course means collections of locations saved with Virtual Earth, but it also means they are now returning results of KML files. This is the same concept which Google introduced to their search results starting in February. This is fundamental to creating the “GeoWeb” – being able to find different forms of geospatial content on the web via search. Now Microsoft has a start at this as well.
- And, you can’t really do anything with KML search results unless your mapping program can show something. Now Microsoft’s Virtual Earth can view KML files. If you search “collections” for something – say “google headquarters in mountain view” – you get back some results which include KMZ files from bbs.keyhole.com (NOTE: so far the only KMZ files I’ve seen come from there). The other important thing to note: So far, the only KML support I’ve seen is for placemarks. Lines, polygons, image overlays, and 3D models all don’t seem to be supported in this first release from Microsoft. [UPDATE: After reading a review of the new features by OgleEarth, I found there is better support for KML - but, in my case the better support only works in the 2D mode of Virtual Earth. So, it appears the update does support lines and polygons at least - in 2D mode.]
Although this is just a baby step for both KML searches and KML support, Microsoft has fired a significant shot across the bow towards Google with this start. And, Microsoft now has millions of new pieces of information by supporting KML through searches since now Virtual Earth users will be able to find so much more thanks to the efforts of so many Google Earth users. However, without supporting the many other features of KML, most of the information is very limited in usefulness. People are still going to get a lot more out of viewing the KML files in Google Earth rather than Virtual Earth.
Speaking of usefulness, Microsoft’s new user interface for Virtual Earth has been changed significantly. I had some initial problems because I hadn’t restarted Firefox after installing the new update (it didn’t tell me I should). But, after I did that, I could see elements of the new interface better. They seem to be adhering to principals Google has done so significantly – very simple look and feel. However, the interface doesn’t encourage or help someone really manipulate the scenery. I found the buttons on the side did not really help me interact (at least on Firefox). In fact, something has happened and I can no longer manipulate the view with CTRL-LMB like I could before. If it wasn’t for the VE SpaceNavigator support, I would find it very awkward to use Virtual Earth. There are aspects to the collection search results which I do like – more information about the search result – file name, and where it came from. I wish Google would do something like that in their KML search results.
Overall, I give Microsoft high marks for the massive amount of new 3D and aerial imagery they’ve been adding. The new release of Virtual Earth also gets high marks for the implementation of Bird’s Eye. I really like the way it works a lot! Simply click at a location and it automatically pulls up the best Bird’s Eye view. Very cool! This is one area where Microsoft has a decided advantage – both in terms of the BE photography data, and the implementation for viewing it. But, I still don’t see this as being a major threat to the continuing popularity of Google Earth. Why? Because the overall user interface, smoothness, usefulness, and massive amounts of very useful data in Google Earth continues to outshine what Microsoft has built so far. But, Google should definitely sit up and take notice, and not drop the ball on continued development for Google Maps and Google Earth. Microsoft is definitely gaining momentum.