Internet companies have taken to the skies in a battle for aerial supremacy.
On Monday, Microsoft introduced a preliminary online feature that combines street maps with photographs taken from airplanes and satellites. The product, MSN Virtual Earth, is intended to give users more detailed driving directions and an easier way to search for local businesses.
The release follows Google's recent foray into aerial imagery, including last month's preliminary introduction of a free three-dimensional mapping service, Google Earth. After downloading some software, users can zoom over cities and mountains like a bird.
Google, in Mountain View, also has made aerial photographs available in its maps area. A new hybrid button introduced Monday allows the maps to be overlaid on satellite and airplane imagery, similar to what is available on Microsoft's Virtual Earth.
Both Google's and Microsoft's services allow users to enter search queries by address and business type and have those locations indicated on an aerial image. Roads and driving directions also can be overlaid on the photographs.
Additional features are available on Microsoft's Virtual Earth to save and share searches. Wireless Internet users can automatically have their location plotted for them on a map based on their proximity to wireless access points or based on their Internet IP address.
MSN Virtual Earth is available at virtualearth.msn.com.
Gary Price, a librarian who is an editor for SearchEngineWatch.com, said that the focus on aerial imagery is more of a case of companies trying to impress users with gee-whiz technology than anything else, at least for now. He said the feature would be a lot more useful if users could click on an image for data such as census information about the neighborhood shown.
"I've been a map geek since I was only 3 years old," Price said. "It's cool stuff, but I don't think that seeing an image from the air is going to make me go to a store and buy something."
Google and Microsoft are engaged in a major battle over Internet users. Each has unveiled a series of features designed to keep users loyal and grab a bigger share of the lucrative search-engine market.
Yahoo, in Sunnyvale, also is a major competitor, though its executives have yet to express any interest in aerial images. Amazon.com offers street- level photographs of businesses through its A9.com search engine.
Aerial mapping isn't new to the Internet. TerraServer, a Microsoft-owned site, has been available for years, and so has another Web site, TerraFly.
The point of aerial images on the Internet -- in addition to the utility for users -- is the potential for local advertising. For example, a user who types in a search for cars while looking at a view of the Bay Area gets a sponsored link for a car rental company below Yellow Pages listings for different automotive related businesses.
Aerial photographs used by Microsoft and Google can be outdated. On Microsoft's service, an overhead view of Apple Inc.'s headquarters in Cupertino showed only one building instead of the sprawling campus of 11 buildings.
Microsoft spokesman Chris Warfield explained that Virtual Earth is being released as a test and that images will be updated regularly. Images of Cupertino, he said, come from the U.S. Geological Survey and were taken in 1991 and 2004.
"That wasn't a prank or anything intentional," Warfield said.
In the fall, Microsoft plans to make 45-degree views of some cities available on Virtual Earth to give users a better sense of individual neighborhoods.