The objective is to raise awareness of the IT specialist’s Mapping products and technologies. These include Microsoft AutoRoute, MapPoint CD, MapPoint Web Services, MapPoint Location Server and Virtual Earth.
First of all, thank you for taking some time from your busy agenda and giving us the occasion to talk about some aspects relevant for the European Earth Observation sector.
Mr Williams first of all, could you briefly describe us your current responsibilities in the Virtual Earth project?
We have just been renamed the Virtual Earth Business Unit, so “Virtual Earth” in at the heart of what we are doing nowadays.
Our products & services encompass everything from our European route planning, consumer cd software which is called “AutoRoute”, that has been in the market now from some 13 years right through to our latest offering “Virtual Earth” which is a web based service. We begin expanding our international coverage for the service from the summer of 2006. We also offer “MapPoint Web Services”, which have been around for two years now, used for more traditional web base geo-location activity like store locators and fleet management. In between we have a business intelligence and analysis offering called “MapPoint CD” , allowing business to visualise their data onto maps which is very interesting for and relevant to industry. Customers & Partners have built numerous solutions & applications on the back of these products.
Microsoft is becoming more involved in the location based sector. The fact that we have a broad range of products & services, all related to mapping clearly shows our level of commitment. From our historical consumer route-planning base we have expanding in more recent years into the commercial sector developing both client base products and web service offerings. Virtual Earth is the latest result of that continuous development and will become familiar through the following:
A) A free to consumer service called “Windows Live Local” (WLL). Available at http://local.live.com this is a location based search enabling webusers to visualise the location of their search results eg. Restaurants, shops, then getting directions.
B) Virtual Earth (VE) as an Application Programme Interface, API. This makes VE a platform more than just a product. It is a tool allowing developers to integrate services allowing them to build up their own applications and solutions (mapping, searching and location functions)
Then, the Microsoft experience has been as a kind of kick off process for moving to geospatial information?
Yes, Microsoft is proud to have been in the geo information business for over 13 years now. Our consumer software, AutoRoute has been the number #1 route planning title in a number of European countries including the UK for over 3yrs and we have experienced much interest and growth with the introduction of our web based services
What is the main purpose of Virtual Earth service? And what are the differences with your competitors, Google and Yahoo?
Virtual Earth is really a platform that is an integrated set of online mapping tools and the idea is that companies, developers and government organizations can create online mapping and research experiences for consumers and commercial applications alike. The Windows Live Local (WLL) is the Microsoft MSN consumer version based on Virtual Earth.
In terms of differences between us and our competitors, I think the key difference is our approach; Virtual Earth is a platform, giving access to visualisation, spatial and data management services. Using Java and map object scripts which make it simple for developers, the API allows integration with existing databases, products and programmes (easily available and simple for people to build on for example ;customer relation management systems) Microsoft also has a huge available partner base, Virtual Earth represents a useful new platform on which they can develop & commercialize solutions.
I believe Microsoft has been dealing with studies; businesses analyses and of course looking for opportunities before Virtual Earth has been launched. What was the idea of the market study strategy on the development of the tool?
The real birth of Virtual Earth is an interesting story. Every year Bill Gates has a “think week”, where he takes time to read documents submitted to him with new ideas for the future. “Virtual Earth” was one of those ideas submitted in 2005 for his consideration on building an online virtual visualization of the world and able to search on that based on the searcher’s location. So, the timing was definitively right. NASA had come up with the visual earth with “Whirlwind” and Google was about to launch Google Earth. Virtual Earth was created by the MapPoint Business Unit and later the team had 80 days to put the concept together (launched in the US last year).
The development steps follow the existing lines: We already had the experience on mapping through the current web services offering. We also have the learnings from the MSN team from a local search perspective, and we know that search was becoming more a more central feature, initially for consumers, but this is a growing requirement in industry as well. The need to find the things based on your location, which is an extremely relevant part of the search, is definitively a very necessary thing. The location piece comes in two parts; the technology (“Locate Me”) offering an IP location (based on IP address) and then the visualization of that location. Finally I think “competition” has played an important part in our development. Microsoft is not doing this in isolation, there is a healthy competitive market for this (both the clientbased products and web based offerings) and that means there is a lot of innovation from all sides.
There is a lot of interest both within the geospatial technology industry and the consumer side. How do you see this technology connecting and impacting the citizen? How popular has the imagery layer been?
This is where for instance Google and Microsoft both have the similar strategy which is; the accessibility to the citizen enabling them to access information. The Virtual Earth platform enables people to have access to information which is already there; aerial photography, satellite imagery, mapping…which has always been available but not necessarily in a very friendly format to the citizen. Now in addition we provide an “engine” to provide additional information on the top of that. For example government organizations can provide the location of possible services including additional information which could improve the life of citizens (urban areas identification; water layers; display risk of flooding areas; insurance prices; etc). The information is not new but it has been put in together in a format which is more understandable, because it is visual and also it is available in a single base; This is certainly where Microsoft is coming from; enabling people “to look for data and at data” in a different way, in a way which is much more understandable.
And how is that success measured or the result monitored?
We are a little early at the moment, we haven’t released nor advertised the consumer version outside of the USA, however the number of people visiting the site today is increasing.
On the commercial side, we made the first API available for free in January of this year. In the United States developers are already building solutions on top of the API. In the summer of this year will be realising the full commercial API and we will measure the success of that result on that based on the number of solutions developed on top of it.
Virtual Earth is free online to the consumer, where is Microsoft going with this product? Who funds the programme? How much does it cost? Which benefits do you get from the use? Is Virtual Earth a value for money?
Basically MSN funds the free beta online system that you can visit today (http://local.live.com) , MSN has offered a free route planning service based on our MapPoint Web Services fro sometime now called “Maps & Directions” and “Windows Live Local” replaces this with exciting additional functionality like aerial imagery. ”Maps & Directions” previously was supported by advertising it offered services; a) finding a location, where people can go and b) getting a route from one place to that location.
“real earth in a virtual way” is your sentence describing “virtual earth”, do you think that EO industry lacks awareness on capabilities of the sector? What about branding ideas?
The capabilities within this sector are expanding rapidly. Broad “awareness” today is in part due to media interest and strong “branding”… It is very interesting that two key worldwide brands have come into the business and therefore partially driven the media interested … but as I have said earlier, competition in this space is healthy.
Do you believe on strategies to gather the public and user awareness?
Totally, we need both industry and consumers perspectives on that. What you can see today on Windows Live Local is already the evolution of what has been running since July last year; getting back the feedback from users, how they are using it, the reasons, etc. A lot of comments have been captured and implemented with one result being the updates to the map navigation on the user interface. In general terms; developers have free access to the API and we have encouraged new types of feature or actions, through online developer sessions called “mash ups”. We have a number of successful “mash up” developers around the world coming up with little applications using this technology to implement new things. For example, they introduced traffic information onto the map, so you can actually see the traffic flow in a particular area which is very useful for consumers planning a journey as well as a business managing a fleet of vehicles.
We do market research focused on consumer areas responding to a large degree to demand of commercial & consumer activities and of course we are taking feedback from our existing customers and we demonstrated to them and explained to them the additional opportunities which they will have with our new platform which they currently do not have with map point services. We definitively have a lot of customer feedback from that perspective as well a continuous awareness on new products; a combination of both things is necessarily.
Virtual earth certainly does some work on knitting the datasets together but for the most part, the company is not in the data creation business, How do you see the EO industry in Europe? Do you think in possible synergies within EO industry? How industry should be evolving? Maybe as providers?
Absolutely, interaction is essential to contact providers and I am sure that with the new platforms new providers will come along…they have the kinds of information useful to consumers and Virtual Earth is the platform which can allow that data to be visualised buy location. Microsoft primarily does business in a way that provides building blocks for other IT organisations , both inhouse and through partners to built solutions for potentially the data providers themselves as well as 3rd parties. For example in the US, there is massive interest in the real estate business for the use of Virtual Earth. We also have a lot of curiosity for government organizations which have already very powerful links with geospatial information systems but they are not accessible to the citizen and the challenge is getting that information displayed visually in a way that a normal citizen can find out, build and control resources (road route developing, etc). Because of that this new platforms will bring part of the solution for local authorities and national governments to be able to display that sort of information and make it available for free or at least in a very easy and low cost way to the citizens and customers.
The focus was primarily within the US, but we are seeing huge and large opportunities outside the US, for example; India, China and countries in South America. In those countries there are a lot of opportunities and interest in new markets looking for solutions for citizens. The market is expanding and they are getting the kind of geospatial information that is required, so the data provision is extremely necessary.
Providers will be necessary to feed with data the new platforms to establish the potential markets.
What is your opinion about Global Earth Observation System of Systems, GEOSS and Global monitoring environment and security, GMES? how can market for GMES should be created in Europe?
From my understanding, the key thing here is that GEOSS and GMES should make available platforms acting as vehicles which enable to understand the chain from data provision and acquiring the data into information giving access to the citizen. It should be also interesting the synergies with potential worldwide brandings to help to make the information available to everybody and expanding the geospatial market generally. Nowadays it is a very exciting time from industry getting data but also having the technology and platforms to deliver the information broadly and going a step further on the market.
In your opinion, what are the main obstacles facing the development of the EO market?
We have seen a few obstacles from our perspective, nowadays it is a question of balancing and prioritisation (how to prioritise the data; too few or too much). Microsoft looks for the perspectives and offerings; it is for others to produce and to incorporate as working solutions. We have commissioned some of the geospatial data for Virtual Earth, but mainly this information is not exclusive for our use. This is short term while we help to kick start some of the data acquisition but we are not in the data creation business.
Let‘s take one step further away, what next for the geospatial marketplace? where do you see the main opportunities for the EO industry in the years to come?
The market potential is enormous. From an industry perspective the geo information pump is primed and for the consumer the possibilities based on location are huge, we could foresee a time when based on where a person is or going to they can easily see meteorological or historical information as well as what is going on at the cinema, football stadium, etc.
Data is not information until there is a way to understand simply and a way for people to access it from anywhere. Helping to drive this conversion and having the chance to do more for improving the life of citizens; decision makers, governments and large institutions is a fantastic challenge. This will undoubtedly create additional demand on data providers and value added solutions.
illustration credits Microsoft
Microsoft Campus, Thames Valley
Park, Reading, Berkshire,
Switchboard: +44 870 60 10 100