Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Apple? - Not on BillG's map

The latest offering from Redmond, MSN Virtual Earth beta is making the buzz for all the wrong reasons.

The Register reports that Apple HQ is nowhere to be found on MSN virtual earth. Apparently, MSN virtual earth has chosen to rebuild the World Trade Center towers too. Looks like the images Microsoft used is way too old.

Clearly, MS has pushed a hastily built software that has not undergone enough testing to make even to alpha stage, as a beta. The stunt is an apparent knee-jerk reaction to the buzz Google is making with its map service and Google Earth. This is supposed to be a competition to Google Earth, but clearly the features or stability to be a credible competitor are missing. This is when Google has upped its sights and started to map the moon!

My gripes about MSN Virtual Earth.

1. The images are way too old. The image quality and resolution is way lacking when compared to Google Earth. Since MS seems to have used U.S.G.S archives which are 10 years old, this is to be expected. But hey, we are talking about one of the richest companies in the world. Surely they could have done better.

2. The map is not as responsive to panning as Google maps. The tiling does not work very well, often leaving large patches of yellow rectangles without resolving the underlying geography. Also, the maps load pretty slowly and often you are left staring at blank patches of screen for seconds before the tiled images start loading. You almost end up thinking that the server has stopped responding. Yeah, I am on 256 kbps broadband, not dial-up :-) .

3. Screws up Firefox. After some panning and zooming, some buttons on Firefox (I am using 1.0.5) does not work well. And hey, why does it disable my "Back" button?

4. "Locate me" feature. I don't understand the actual need for such a feature except for generating buzz. The feature requires ActiveX which I think is one-step backwards for Microsoft for making this technology work with other browsers such as Firefox. The I.P address based location does not work very well. It located me in Bombay, India whereas I am actually in Bangalore.

5. Sticky mouse buttons: The left mouse click tends to "stick" on the page. So even after I release the mouse button and move the mouse, the image keeps panning. I have to click the left mouse button once more to "release" the "stickiness".

6. The stupid compass: Why do you need that? It just eats up space on the map and is really not very useful.

7. Interface quality: The interface seems hastily thrown together and not well thought out. It is counter-intuitive if you are used to Google maps since the search and address box is on the left rather than on the right as in Google. To me, right position seems more intuitive and user friendly since that means the map does not overlap on the right edge of my screen and looks solid. Also, MS seemed to have not done much research on how surrounding colors affect the users ability to effectively view the maps. The choice of colors and color contrast leaves a lot to be desired. If I were the engineer, I would replace that stupid blue overlay on the top with something that increases the contrast and is less straining on the eyes.

The pluses.

1. It occupies more screen area than Google maps. Clearly this is an advantage.
2. Seems to show more places in India than Google. Hell, it even shows some obscure towns and villages in Kerala, my native state. Google maps suck in that respect.


Conclusion: Not enough reasons for anyone to switch to Virtual Earth if he/she is already using Google earth/google maps. I think MS should apologize, rename the release to MSN VE alpha, work on it a bit more and release a much better, user-friendly and fast beta. Then I would agree that it is competition.

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