3D version of Virtual Earth. Microsoft is positioning Virtual Earth as "the beginning of the 3D Web", a quote I heard from Steve Lawler (General Manager, Virtual Earth Business Unit) during the launch event this evening. In my discussion with Steve and Christopher - which was more an informal sit-down than a formal interview - we discussed the ramifications of this 3D push, as well as how visual search is the next big thing in search.Tonight I sat down with Microsoft executives Steve Berkowitz (Senior Vice President, Online Services Group) and Christopher Payne (Corporate Vice President, Live Search) to talk about their new
First things first. Here is a quick overview of the product details from Techcrunch:
"US users with Vista-ready Windows computers and IE 6 or 7 will be able to navigate through an aerial view of 15 select cities with enough detail to discern the texture of buildings and read clickable billboards from the likes of Fox, Nissan and John L. Scott Real Estate. Virtual Earth 3D is expected to expand to cover up to 100 cities around the world by the end of next summer. "
Virtual Earth can be used only in IE browsers (no immediate plans for Firefox, in the beta at least), and as part of search results. On that latter point, Microsoft is very keen to "change the game of search" and take it to the next level - in order to trump a certain Mountain View company. But during my conversation with Steve and Christopher, it was clear that they regard this as an evolutionary process and not a revolutionary one. They told me that visual search is the next step in search and Virtual Earth is a good demonstration of where search is headed.
Pic: Antonio Ortiz
We got onto the topic of mobile phones and how location-based search will utilize the visual aspects of mapping and 3D views that Virtual Earth is showcasing currently. This is looking at future Live products perhaps, but it's fascinating to think of the possibilities...
As to the current utility of Virtual Earth, it is certainly a technical step above what Google has to offer right now. Whether it will be as well-used for the next year or so is another matter, as it requires a Windows machine running Vista to work and IE. But in terms of technical achievement and 'the wow factor', there's no doubt Virtual Earth has it in spades. When you use the product and drill down into the city landscapes, it's almost as if you're surfing in SecondLife. I can imagine this technology being used in Xbox 360 and indeed the advertising that is part of the 3D landscape of Virtual Earth comes from Microsoft acquisition Massive (which does advertising within games). This is where the similarity with mobile is most striking - because the advertising we'll get in Virtual Earth will be location-based too, e.g. advertising from local restaurants, movies playing in the local theatre, etc.
Steve and Christopher told me that visual search will be pushed out to other products in the Live family of products over time - e.g. mobile, XBox and perhaps even Zune. This theme of visual search and 3D interfaces shows that Microsoft really is pushing the envelope in search (something I questioned recently). The proof will be in the pudding, whether millions of people actually use this type of technology on a regular basis over the next few years. But it's good to see them doing something different in the search space. While Google continues to bound ahead in general search, Yahoo goes after social search, and little startups like Eurekster and Rollyo come out with new things - Microsoft is starting to ramp up their search with visual interfaces.
Finally, a note on the Live/MSN branding. I asked Steve about the confusion between the two - he replied that the two brands have different audiences and so he sees the MSN brand continuing for quite some time. While Live services will be a big focus, Microsoft will continue to drive the MSN brand for the type of user who doesn't want/need the personalization and advanced functionality offered in Live products. That type of user may use both MSN and Live products (e.g. MSN portal and Live Messenger), but Steve says there is room for both brands - it isn't a 'one size fits all' product strategy.