NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, January 2010
Microsoft’s “Bing Maps” Takes on Google and Yahoo!
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

(click to email author)


For several years I have been a loyal user of Yahoo! maps (maps.yahoo.com) to get route maps on my local and long distance road trips. Sometimes I would also check Google’s road map utility (maps.google.com) to corroborate what was displayed by Yahoo!, and also to determine if there were any good alternative routes. I also have used Google Earth (earth.google.com) to display aerial and satellite photographs of areas of interest, as well as view 3-D images of the buildings in an area so I could better understand the area I was traveling to. Recently, Microsoft has joined the fray with the public rollout of its competitive product, Bing Maps beta (maps.bing.com).

When I first accessed Bing Maps beta using my Firefox browser, I was able to access several of the Bing Maps features, but Microsoft advised me that in order to make use of all of the rich features of the service, I would need to download and install Microsoft’s free Silverlight software. Silverlight is application software that is a 5mb download and enables the display of enhanced graphics, video, multimedia, and animations. Silverlight downloaded and installed quickly on my computer, and while it adds substantial capabilities to Bing Maps, it is not a requisite to use the basic functions of Bing Maps. With Silverlight installed, I was able to access very high quality digital images that rival Google’s Streetview and Google’s free standing Google Earth utility. Microsoft calls its highly localized street images “Streetside”, and offers very sharp and detailed street level and aerial images which can be viewed either as an image, an image overlaid with streets and other features, or as a more traditional street map. While localized Streetside images are not yet available for the entire country, they are currently available for many major cities. Bing Maps beta also automatically integrates with the countless images available on Microsoft’s Photosynth imaging service, providing high resolution local images.

When first loaded, Bing Maps beta shows the current local weather, a local map, and some thumbnails of local Photosynth images (if available). Links on the page also display “What’s nearby”, restaurants, hotels, and current local traffic information if available in that locality. Clicking on a Photosynth thumbnail starts an animated “trip” which zooms over the region, zooms in on the precise spot on the aerial map, and opens the image. Once opened, the image can be manipulated, zoomed, and rotated giving a 360 degree image from street level. In some cities (about 100 so far, according to Microsoft), the downtown areas have been digitized allowing not just the 360 degree Photosynth image, but also a fully interactive and controllable 3-D image of the area, where the buildings and other features can be navigated as if flying through the canyons of structures.

Another interesting feature of Bing Maps beta is real time traffic information, which shows road construction information and current speeds (color coded) on major roads in the larger cities. This traffic information integrates well into detailed driving directions, such that the traveler can visualize any road construction or other impediments to a speedy trip. When getting travel directions, the user can have Bing Maps determine the shortest route, the fastest route, and even produce round trip directions. Multiple way points can be added by clicking on the “add to route” link. Once a route is determined and displayed, Bing gives the user the opportunity to modify the route by clicking on “See best route based on traffic”. Icons on the bottom of the page allow the user to selectively display live traffic information, email the selected route information, print a detailed routing, see “your places”, or implement additional applications. Gas stations, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, shopping malls, and other points of interest can be selectively displayed on the maps.

When printed, Bing Maps’ travel directions give detailed and graphical directions. One very helpful feature of the printed directions, typically lacking on competing services, are highly visible landmarks at major points on the map, which can be used to easily determine where to turn. On the example that I ran, driving from the Examiner offices to the IAH airport in Houston, the printed directions said , “Turn right onto JFK Blvd / John F Kennedy Blvd. Pass SHELL in 0.8 mi” and “Take ramp right for E Belt Dr / E Beltway 8 / E Sam Houston Pkwy N toward Houston / Liberty - Pass VALERO in 4.6 mi”. In this particular case, the Shell and Valero gas stations would be very visible landmarks to visually ease the finding of the turns on the route. One cute feature was intended to show if you passed your chosen destination; “Arrive at Houston Intercontinental Airport, TX on the right - If you reach Terminal Rd S, you've gone too far.”

Bing Maps beta may also be a helpful tool to locate restaurants and other points of interest. While a map is displayed, clicking on “What’s nearby” displays points of interest on that open map at the selected scale. As an experiment, I selected to show the locations of Genghis Grill in Dallas, one of my family’s favorite restaurants. Placing the cursor over a selected restaurant (or other place of interest), information on that selection is displayed, and a link for “add to directions” appears which will create detailed driving directions to that location.

To add interest to selected maps, the link to the additional map applications opens a selection of about twenty choices all keyed to the map on display. These applications connect to neighborhood information, Twitter comments on the neighborhood displayed, a restaurant finder where restaurants can be selected by type of food, businesses by category, local news, hotel information, webcams, roadside attractions, graffiti, murals, signs and billboards, and other highly localized categories of information.

Bing Maps is currently a beta, or pre-release version, and is not totally refined. As I was using it to compose this column, I occasionally received a popup that said that the service was temporarily unavailable, but usually within a few seconds Bing Maps was functional again. Bing Maps beta is clearly an unfinished work in progress, but what is currently available is very attractive and useful. I can also see Bing Maps along with its massive database of local information, a very useful mobile application, which is clearly in the works. Other than some performance issues, I found Bing Maps beta a very useful service, and will reference it frequently both locally and while traveling.

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