Map is being evolved as social media

Map is being evolved as social media


Here at Microsoft the environment is different than the organisation I previously lead and managed (GeoTango, a 3D mapping and visualization company).
Dr. Vincent Tao
Microsoft Virtual Earth, Business Unit

Q: How has been the experience, being part of industry after a long stint as academician?

Here at Microsoft the environment is different than the organisation I previously lead and managed (GeoTango, a 3D mapping and visualization company). The issues we are tackling are of a larger scale than the ones I used to handle before. But one thing I find in common, between academic research and industry, is that we are all focused on innovation. If researchers have opportunities I would definitely encourage them to work in the industry for some time period so as to understand the major drivers behind the industry evolution. However, this is really a personal choice as academia also has many exciting research issues to address.

Q: How has the growth of Microsoft virtual Earth been since its inception?

It started in 1995 with Encarta, where people get the view of 3D globe with detailed map of different regions. Then came MapPoint in 2001, which provided online maps and directions, with a set of APIs allowing third parties to integrate a mapping component directly into their websites. So, Microsoft has had a long experience with providing consumer-based map products online.

Microsoft started building the Virtual Earth (VE) platform in early 2005 to help consumers gain more immersive mapping and search experiences. The entry point to Virtual Earth is through the Live Search Maps consumer portal at, which is built on the Virtual Earth platform.

Virtual Earth is a technology platform with a set of services and API’s allowing developers to integrate Virtual Earth into their own applications or their own entry points (websites). Microsoft Virtual Earth, in both 2D and 3D versions, is offered as part of the Microsoft Developer Network. For consumers, Virtual Earth powers online mapping services through Microsoft’s www. and MSN, the later is available in 21 languages in some 42 markets, and we are able to reach a huge audience through these entry points.

Q: How do you analyse the growth of VE?

The growth is of two sides. On the consumer side, the analysis is based on of course, the statistics about usage of users such as unique visitors per month and page views. There is a daily tracking system to analyse how the numbers (traffic) are growing. We have not released any figures yet; we only have internal numbers that help our analysis, but there are third party companies who track these numbers using a certain approach. However, there are other factors also affecting growth for VE, Microsoft as a whole and for many other businesses. There is a lot of room for us to grow in this sector. On the business side, this is based on transactions.

We do count how many mapping tiles are being accessed by users, by third party websites and also by fees when people pay to license our platform. We are very pleased with our growth so far.

Q: How do you differentiate MapPoint from VE?

VE goes far beyond the general mapping features like finding maps and directions. It extends online-mapping to the next stage. The next stage is what we define as local search, online infotainment and social networking. So, it is beyond the scope of MapPoint, which was merely a mapping software.

VE’s vision is to enable the connection between people to local content, people to local business and people to people locally. This allows users to access not just maps and directions; but much more rich information about the community they live in, about the places they want to visit and about the events they want to join. We have invested significantly in technology innovation, from oblique images to 3D textured models, from streetside images to Photosynth. The later two features have not been released yet. Map is being evolved as social media where communication and collaboration among users will become one of the major drivers for people to use maps to share their knowledge, information, and experiences.

Q: If a city wants to integrate local information say, traffic information to VE, do standards play role?

For the Virtual Earth platform, we deliver a very rich set of APIs that supports both 2D and 3D functions, which is VE 2D and 3D repectively. In our own portal, you can see 2D and 3D are fully integrated into the web browser environment.

For example, without downloading a separate client application, you can either look at a 2D map for traffic information or you can drive through in 3D to have a feel of it. These capabilities are provided to developers and the third parties so they can integrate into their own software applications.

For example the Microsoft Virtual Earth Plug-in for Outlook is available for free downloading. Once you download and install it, it is part of Outlook scheduling. When you schedule a meeting for example with someone in Downtown, and it will take 30 minutes to get there, the programme will alert you 30 minutes before the meeting and provide driving directions as well. This is how you can integrate the 2D and 3D features of Virtual Earth into your own client and desktop applications.

Q: Is there any current support in VE for the industry standard Vector or Imagery formats to be overlaid for analysis?

As I have said earlier, we provide APIs and the developers can have their own ways for integrating their content. There are many data conversion utilities available that can help to convert data and use our APIs to overlay over VE. So at the API level we support image overlay, different formats, and many of the GIS functions and operations.

At the data format level, we currently support GeoRSS for the web portal, and VE is one of the first to support GeoRSS, an open standard that will help in import/export of data collections.

There is a big question for us, i.e should we offer a new format for data exchange?. Personally, I am very careful about that. I am coming from a geospatial background and we all understand the issue with the proprietary formats and their implications with regard to interoperability.

However, there is no OpenGIS format currently available that supports the capabilities that we need for VE.

Q: If after using Google API user wants to migrate for some reasons to VE and vice-versa, how do you see such situations?

It should be straight forward. At the API level, it is interesting that many users have experienced different API’s (provided by different vendors). Unfortunately you will observe that there are no API standards as vendors try to provide innovative features through their own API’s.

But the good news is, at the web service level all those API’s are similar, i.e. XML based and it is not too difficult for developers to switch, to use one API or the other. In fact, they can even combine different API’s in their own software. I do not see the possibility of standardising all the APIs in future. At the data format level, however, I believe that there is room for standardisation.

Q: Would you like to describe licensing options availabile on VE?

For developers it is free for use on websites that have less than 1 million unique visitors per month, which is a lot. You have limitations in terms of transactions of mapping tiles up to 3 million per month. If it is more than that, meaning your business is substantial, Microsoft would like to have a share from it by way of fee based licensing. This policy allows as many developers as possible to do the integration for free either for research or for business purposes.

If researchers have opportunities I would definitely encourage them to work in the industry for some time period so as to understand the major drivers behind the industry evolution.