Microsoft's Virtual Earth site includes satellite photos of buildings and streets
In the hotel business, location matters nearly as much as in real estate. On its busiest E-commerce days, when travelers book more than $7 million worth of rooms at the Holiday Inn and other Intercontinental Hotels Group plc properties, more than two-thirds consult an online map, says Del Ross, VP of global E-commerce.
"When deciding on what hotel to stay in, there are two hugely important questions that come before price: Where's the hotel in relation to where I need to go? And what's surrounding the hotel?" Ross says. Maps have become "a critical component to being able to sell effectively on the Internet."
Factor in the fast growth of online ads that run alongside local searches, and it's no wonder Microsoft, Google Inc., and others with big Web properties are racing to release the best maps. Microsoft will launch this week Virtual Earth, a Web site that lets users scroll around an interactive map of the United States that includes satellite photos of buildings, streets, and landmarks. Virtual Earth uses Windows' ability to sniff out Wi-Fi access points to log users on to a Web page that starts with the city they're in. Microsoft plans to license Virtual Earth to businesses hoping to jazz up their online cartography and will tap into the 500-company installed base of its less visually lush MapPoint Web service.
Since chairman Bill Gates gave Virtual Earth the green light five months ago, Microsoft has built the site, folded its MapPoint software group and several researchers into a new group inside MSN, and gone on a hiring spree that will see the team grow to maybe 70 people. Microsoft plans to integrate Virtual Earth with its MSN travel and auto sites and wants to negotiate deals with companies to put their logos on the satellite images, which come from TerraServer, a Microsoft site that was one of the first to make satellite photography accessible to large numbers of online users. Microsoft plans to update Virtual Earth this fall with close-up cityscape photos and more-detailed satellite images.
Microsoft plans to license the interactive Virtual Earth to companies hoping to jazz up their online cartography.
While Microsoft has been crunching to build Virtual Earth, rival Google has released a spate of online-mapping software that has Web users abuzz. In February, Google Maps changed the way people interact with geographic software online by using novel programming techniques to let users zoom around a map of North America without refreshing their browsers. Google Earth debuted last month, letting Web surfers move around a 3-D globe and drop down to view their local Starbucks or their house. In the past few weeks, Google has launched a Japanese version of Maps and flipped the switch on Google Moon, based on NASA images.
Microsoft and Google are competing for a share of ads tied to searches users perform on their sites and revenue from licensing their technologies to companies wanting to improve their own sites. "They're playing a game of leapfrog, which is great for us," says Ross at Intercontinental, which uses Microsoft MapPoint at its site. Intercontinental is talking to both Microsoft and Google about buying ads pegged to site searches, Ross says.
Marriott International Inc. licenses Microsoft's MapPoint software for its site and is experimenting with more interactive maps on the Web site for its Marriott Marquis hotel in New York's Times Square, says Mike Keppler, VP of sales and marketing. It's also working on deals that would let it show customers online maps with the local weather before they arrive at a Marriott.
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