Satellite maps come of age

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Bill Gates demoed a future satellite image map service for MSN at Wall Street Journal’s D:All Things Digital conference yesterday. SearchEngineWatch has more here.

Great to see this. I’ve been using Google’s satellite images at maps.google.com more and more–passing along the tip to friends and family. It’s surprisingly handy. (Go to maps.google.com, enter an address, and then click on “Satellite” in the orange bar at the top-right of the browser page. You can pan around by clicking and dragging the satellite image. It’s surprisingly super fast.)

This past week I needed to make book a hotel for TechEd, for instance. Unfortunately, I was doing this late and the suggested hotels on the conference list were all booked up. Turns out TechEd is sold out. So using a hotel list provided by the Orlando area, I went through website after website. And when I found a hotel that looked promising I checked Google’s satellite photos to see where the hotel was in relation to the convention center and in general what the area looked like. Was it a downtown area? What did a walk to the convention center look like? Would I have to cross a busy street? A field? Did the actual hotel building look like a converted Motel 6? And so forth.

I’ve been using the satellite-enhanced maps so much, I’m almost preferring them to the vectorized maps. If I can see something–a road, a building, etc–I am more apt to believe the map is correct.

And I love the concept behind the augmented maps, such as HousingMaps where houses for sale are marked on the satellite photos. It’s so fast and easy to use.

I’ve yet to figure out how to hack the Google maps, but it would be fun to do. Hopefully MSN’s Virtual Earth effort doesn’t forget about the developer and comes up with a way to display third-party geo data on the fly too.

Some other things I’d like to see:

* More detail. Be able to zoom in further. 🙂
* Real-time projection/overlay of freeway traffic cameras.
* More coverage in the US and overseas.
* More customization hooks. How about a real-time FedEx map of their truck locations? Would that make you trust their service more? Or less? House and apartment hunting will be relying upon these services more and more I bet.
* If a satellite site links to a webpage, can it automatically pick up context tagged photos that show additional photo details about a building? Think of it as RSS for satellite maps.
* What about hiking and biking trails?
* Merge road/map labels with the satellite photos.

Lots of exciting commercial and non-commercial possibilities.

First and foremost, though, the baseline has to be fast, easy to use, and loaded with data, like Google’s Keyhole satellite images.

I’m looking forward to trying MSN’s entry too. It’ll be interesting to see which service the third-party efforts align with. Will Google gain an entrenched foothold in the developer community that’ll be hard to overcome? Or will MSN be able to leverage Microsoft’s online community of friends, come up with a concise third-party story (that avoids the word “hack”), and outreaches Google in the coming year? Should be quite telling.