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Google, Microsoft map out the future

Mike Musgrove The Washington Post

A war of the virtual worlds is gearing up between search engine company Google Inc. and software maker Microsoft Corp., as the two tech rivals race to bring competing digital versions of planet Earth onto the World Wide Web.

Where traditional, two-dimensional maps are already available online at sites such as MapQuest.com, projects underway at Google and Microsoft will eventually let users click around through immersive and interactive 3-D versions of city streets while sitting at their desktop computers.

The idea is that travelers will use the free online services not only to check out new cities, but to customize their visits by zooming in on individual points of interest flagged by the software.

“Theme parks, bike trails — anything you can imagine under the sun” could be explored with the click of a mouse, said Tom Bailey, director of sales and marketing for Microsoft’s MapPoint Business Unit, the division responsible for the company’s MSN Virtual Earth project.

While giving a reporter a virtual tour, Bailey showed how the software could be used to find, and inspect, steakhouses in Seattle using street maps overlaid with satellite imagery of the city. Eventually, he said, Microsoft wants the software to be detailed enough so that users can surf their way through a shopping mall as they decide whether to shop there or not.

MSN Virtual Earth is scheduled for a release this summer; the software will let users view images 50 to 100 feet above the tops of buildings in many urban areas. Microsoft is not including rural areas at the time of the software’s launch.

But Microsoft’s project isn’t the only planet in town. Last month, Google co-founder Sergey Brin demonstrated his company’s Google Earth at a news conference and showed how the software could make it seem as if a user were flying through a digitized Grand Canyon.

Google is working to make the software as easy to use as its popular search engine: Users start with a view of the Earth floating in outer space, zooming in at will to any spot with a roll of a mouse wheel. Google Earth uses technology developed by Keyhole Corp., a company Google acquired in October. The software is still in testing, and the company has not said when the product will be ready for a final release.

The dueling virtual planets are just the latest round in an ongoing competition between Google and Microsoft for dominance among users and customers, as the two have released products that encroach on each other’s dominance among search tools and desktop software applications. The two rivals aren’t even the only ones trying to digitize the planet — online retailer Amazon.com offers panoramic pictures of real-world storefronts at its Web site. Yahoo Inc., meanwhile, is also in the map business, trying to carve its own niche by offering live traffic updates for many major cities.

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