On July 25, 2005, Microsoft released its Virtual Earth Beta as a direct competitor to the beta version of Google Earth. Unlike Google Earth, whose files you need to download to your PC before you can use it (the data you request is then superprocessed at Google and returned to you via your browser), Virtual Earth runs entirely on Microsoft's server via your browser. Until the final versions of the Microsoft and Google products are available, the question is, who built a better beta? For ease of use and planning trips within the United States, Microsoft has an edge over Google. But Microsoft can't compete with Google's awesome, signature satellite imagery features and expanded Earth coverage, so we have to give the nod to Google.
Upside: If you have a Wi-Fi card in your computer, you may find Virtual Earth's Locate Me feature particularly useful. Click the Locate Me button, and, once you enable ActiveX on your browser and download the Location Finder application, Virtual Earth shows your current location (sometimes as close as 50 feet) based on the nearest Wi-Fi access points. If you don't have a Wi-Fi card, the Locate Me function is less useful; Virtual Earth instead uses your IP address to display the city or county you're in, which may be too general if you're trying to find nearby restaurants and hotels.
Many users will enjoy the multiple search capabilities of Virtual Earth, something particularly useful to travelers. For example, if you're in Boston and you know that you want to grab lunch at an Au Bon Pain, then pick up a prescription at the nearest Walgreens, you can concurrently view the locations of each of these business chains, see their proximity to each other, and find the two nearest your current location. Searches on Virtual Earth create a virtual concierge service for the traveler and are more robust and accurate than Google Earth's comparable Layers feature.
Within the left-hand navigation on Virtual Earth, you can search for data in a What box (restaurants, museums, and so on) and a Where box (cities, states). In January 2006, Microsoft plans to add interactive user content (so that you can annotate your favorite restaurants for others to read) as well as location-specific weather and traffic data. A slider bar makes it easy to zoom in and out of maps, while the Permalink, Scratch Pad, and Community options let you save, e-mail, and post data to an MSN Spaces blog.
Since it's browser-driven, Virtual Earth works on both Macs and PCs. We tested it on Windows XP using Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox, and it worked equally well on both browsers.
Microsoft plans to provide Virtual Earth for free. Since the company will support the feature with advertising and branding opportunities for businesses, it may become fairly ad-laden in the future--but then, so could the free version of Google Earth. In early September, Microsoft released to developers new application programming interfaces (APIs) to encourage commercial expansion of Virtual Earth's local search capabilities.
Downside: Because it doesn't rely on a superprocessor, Virtual Earth lacks a counterpart to Google Earth's fun Fly To option, which takes you on a colorful aerial tour from one point to another. Microsoft plans to add 45-degree angle images (a feature of Google Earth not available in Virtual Earth) via a license with Pictometry International Corporation, but it's not yet available. Virtual Earth's aerial imagery, with topography supplied by the U.S. Geological Survey and satellite imagery from Blue Marble, loads slower than Google's, and sometimes chunks of images are blurry or just plain missing (sections of the San Francisco Bay were blank on our test machine). Switching to the Road Map option provides a much crisper visual than the aerial view, but Virtual Earth covers only the United States. While Microsoft says that some Canadian cities are also covered by Virtual Earth, in this beta we could not view Quebec, Calgary, or Vancouver.
Outlook: If you're traveling in the States, Virtual Earth's multiple search capabilities and Road Map features can be particularly useful. The aerial portion of Virtual Earth, however, is clearly still under construction. Despite promises of Pictometry, Google Earth will probably remain the best choice for users who want to zoom in and out of aerial views. Travelers looking for local maps, driving routes, and businesses will like Virtual Earth, but students and casual browsers will prefer Google Earth.