A war of the virtual worlds is gearing up between search engine company Google Inc. and software maker Microsoft Corp., as the two tech rivals race to bring competing digital versions of planet Earth onto the World Wide Web.
Where traditional, two-dimensional maps are already available online at sites such as MapQuest.com, projects underway at Google and Microsoft will eventually let users click around through immersive and interactive 3-D versions of city streets while sitting at their desktop computers.
The idea is that travelers will use the free online services not only to check out new cities, but to customize their visits by zooming in on individual points of interest flagged by the software.
"Theme parks, bike trails -- anything you can imagine under the sun" could be explored with the click of a mouse, said Tom Bailey, director of sales and marketing for Microsoft's MapPoint Business Unit, the division responsible for the company's MSN Virtual Earth project.
While giving a reporter a virtual tour, Bailey showed how the software could be used to find, and inspect, steakhouses in Seattle using street maps overlaid with satellite imagery of the city. Eventually, he said, Microsoft wants the software to be detailed enough so that users can surf their way through a shopping mall as they decide whether to shop there or not.
MSN Virtual Earth is scheduled for a release this summer; the software will let users view images 50 to 100 feet above the tops of buildings in many urban areas. Microsoft is not including rural areas at the time of the software's launch.
But Microsoft's project isn't the only planet in town. Last month, Google co-founder Sergey Brin demonstrated his company's Google Earth at a news conference and showed how the software could make it seem as if a user were flying through a digitized Grand Canyon. Brin joked that he'd never been there before and that, thanks to his company's virtual globe software, he doesn't have to visit now.
Google is working to make the software as easy to use as its popular search engine: Users start with a view of the Earth floating in outer space, zooming in at will to any spot with a roll of a mouse wheel. Google Earth uses technology developed by Keyhole Corp., a company Google acquired last October. The software is still in testing, and the company has not said when the product will be ready for a final release.
The dueling virtual planets are just the latest round in an ongoing competition between Google and Microsoft for dominance among users and customers, as the two have released products that encroach on each other's dominance among search tools and desktop software applications. The two rivals aren't even the only ones trying to digitize the planet -- online retailer Amazon.com offers panoramic pictures of real-world storefronts at its Web site. Yahoo Inc., meanwhile, is also in the map business, trying to carve its own niche by offering live traffic updates for many major cities.
Microsoft and Google are entering turf dominated by the America Online Inc.-owned MapQuest, a service with a distant head start. According to research firm ComScore Media Metrix, MapQuest had 43 million unique users for the month of May, about 76 percent of online map users.
MapQuest experimented with letting users peek at satellite images years ago, but it couldn't find a use for the technology that interested consumers beyond a few minutes' novelty.
"We weren't really seeing a return on the investment," said MapQuest spokesman Brian Hoyt. But others said they can envision a potential revenue bonanza for the company that figures out how to circumnavigate the globe in a way that appeals to consumers.
Gary Price, news editor of Search Engine Watch, said such a service could quickly generate revenue if retailers and advertisers get a chance to hawk their stores and products on it. Real estate brokers and others might pay the two companies for a fuller and ad-free version of the software, he said.
Some contributors at techie-oriented Web sites have worried that such detailed virtual maps could be used by terrorists to gather information for an attack. Bruce Schneier, founder of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. and author of books about security, scoffed at the idea.
"I find that kind of thinking stupid -- all technologies have uses that are good and bad," he said. "Terrorists can use cars and cell phones and books and pencils and go to school."
For Paul Saffo, director of a Silicon Valley think tank, Google Earth is a logical extension of a Web site that is indispensable to many users.
"Google has indexed all of cyberspace," he said. "If it's going to keep growing, it's going to have to index something else -- and that something else is physical reality. . . . Maybe the next time I lose my car keys, I can just go onto Google and search for them."
Staff writer David A. Vise contributed to this report.