Virtual Earth, which is scheduled to launch this summer, would compete with Google Inc.'s Google Earth service, launched in beta Tuesday. Both companies plan to integrate satellite images of places in their local-search services.
Orbimage, based in Dulles, Va., currently has two photo-gathering satellites. The images that will be fed to Microsoft are capable of showing aerial views of buildings and streets, but not any ground-level details, Timothy Puckorious, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Orbimage, said.
"If you were butt naked sunning on your roof, it wouldn't see that," Puckorious said of the satellite.
That, however, would change in the first half of 2007, when Orbimage plans to launch its OrbView-5 satellite, which will deliver the highest resolution possible.
"The resolution will be so good that you will be able to count manhole covers in Manhattan," Puckorious said.
While that level of quality will be available to Microsoft, it's not clear whether the company would have a need for it. Steve Lombardi, program manager for Virtual Earth, declined comment on Microsoft's future plans.
Competition between Microsoft, Redmond, Wash.; and Google, Mountain View, Calif., is heating up as Microsoft looks to increase its relatively small share of the online advertising market that's related to search.
As of early June, Google's share of the U.S. search market reached an all-time high of 52 percent, more than double its closest competitor Yahoo Inc. and more than four times that of Microsoft MSN.
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are focusing heavily on local search, which studies show is often used by consumers looking for products and services in their cities and towns. As a result, the service is attractive to advertisers.
Yahoo does not offer aerial views, like Google and MSN. The former gets its photos from Keyhole Corp., a digital-mapping company that Google acquired last year. Besides Orbimage, Microsoft gets its photos from TerraServer USA, a research project operated by Microsoft.
For most consumers, the satellite photos provide a general view of the area around a specific location. In addition, Google and Microsoft are adding layers of data, such as businesses, road names, highway signs and more.
MSN Virtual Earth would let users overlay as many as three search results on a photo. So, for example, someone could place a restaurant, theater and late-night cafe in planning a night out on the town, Lombardi said. In addition, users will be able to create their own location-filled maps, such as one with their favorite nightclubs, and make it available through MSN's social network, called MSN Space.
In the fall, Microsoft plans to add pictures of locations taken at different angles by low flying airplanes, Lombardi said. Microsoft is licensing the pictures from Pictometry International Corp.
Google and MSN, however, are not alone among major Internet companies focusing on pictures in local search. Amazon.com's search engine A9.com, for example, shows street-level pictures of businesses that are taken by people driving around in trucks. The service currently covers about a dozen cities.
Pictures, however, are only as valuable as the information they contain, Puckorious said. For example, a realtor might be willing to pay for a service that would make it easy to find nearby schools, bus stops, parks and other places near a new listing. In addition, the service provider could also offer public information available on the property, such as tax records.
"Just think of that process evolving," Puckorious said. "There's a lot of data out there, and one of the key objectives of Microsoft is to bring it all together."
Ultimately, the data that's available with the pictures would determine the value of the service, Puckorious said.
Orbimage, which is a subsidiary of Orbimage Holdings Inc., currently gets about half its revenue from government contracts, Puckorious said. The Microsoft deal, however, potentially delivers a broader audience.
"Through this deal with Microsoft, we hope to reach more consumers than ever before," Puckorious said. "The organization understands large scale. We expect to achieve a market leadership sooner, thanks to our relationship with Microsoft."