Search Engines Move Toward Satellite Future

By Leslie Walker
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Microsoft and Google are trying to move satellite imagery on the Web beyond the gee-whiz-look-at-my-neighbor's-house stage into something more useful. They want to use this technology to make their local search services more helpful and useful, which in turn would enable them to sell more ads.

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates last week showed an elaborate application his company plans to release midsummer, dubbed MSN Virtual Earth. It will eventually marry aerial photos of buildings taken from low-flying airplanes with a variety of mapping tools, driving directions, local phone-book listings, traffic reports, and related features from Microsoft's MapPoint and local search services.

All this information will be provided in a series of overlays so that when you view a satellite map of, say, M Street in Georgetown, you can ask Virtual Earth to spotlight all the Italian restaurants by displaying their names on the buildings they occupy, then point out all the nearby ATMs. Microsoft wants to make its overhead perspectives more recognizable by using photos taken at 45-degree angles, rather than the traditional top-down, rooftops-only satellite view. But these new shots, provided by a company called Pictometry International Corp., won't be available until the fall, a few months after the Virtual Earth service is supposed to go live.

Google announced this month that it was working on a similar service called Google Earth (based on the Keyhole satellite-imagery program it bought in fall 2004) that integrates satellite photos into Google's local search service. It does not contain the same 45-degree photos Microsoft showed but features three-dimensional building views in some cities.

Snapfish Snips Print Prices

Snapfish, the Web photo service recently bought by Hewlett-Packard, last week cut its price for printing a 4-by-6 photo to 12 cents from 19 cents, making it the cheapest of all the major Internet photo finishers. Single 4-by-6 prints still cost 25 cents at Kodak's EasyShare Gallery (formerly called Ofoto), 29 cents at Shutterfly and 19 cents at PhotoWorks.

Yahoo Upgrades Photo Sharing

Yahoo launched a trial version of a new PhotoMail service Thursday that lets people send as many as 300 photos in one message. This Windows-only software integrates with Yahoo's Web mail service, adding an "insert photos" button to attach compressed copies of your pictures.

Quick Quake Checkups

Much as people consult unreliable weather forecasts on the Web, now they can check for unreliable earthquake forecasts using a new Web map from the U.S. Geological Survey. Updated every hour, this map shows the chances of tremors occurring anywhere in California within the next 24 hours. The seismologists in Pasadena, Calif., who developed the service stressed that its computerized model, based on past tremor patterns, can't predict any one seismic shift.

PayPal Shuts Bill-Pay Service

PayPal, eBay's Web-based money-transfer service, is closing its bill-paying service after Aug. 1. PayPal launched BillPay in 2002 to let users quickly dispatch regular charges from the likes of phone and cable-TV companies. Notices e-mailed to users last week did not explain why BillPay was ending, but PayPal spokeswoman Amanda Pires said not enough people signed up. E-mail Leslie Walker

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