Google Maps vs. MSN Virtual Earth

by M. David Peterson

Related link:

Google Maps vs. MSN Virtual Earth

A while back I posted an entry to my personal blog soon after I had watched the Scoble MSN Virtual Earth demo on "Channel 9" of Microsoft's Developer Network (MSDN). After watching this demo I came to the realization that Google Maps, as nice as it is, was in for a rude awakening when MSN's Virtual Earth hit the streets.

Was I correct? I'll let you be the judge:


As mentioned in the preview the following results are based from an installation of Fedora Core 4 (Linux/GNOME) and Mozilla Firefox 1.0.7. After having a chance to play with MSN's Virtual Earth on a WinXP Pro install using Firefox 1.0.7 and discovering that yes, as claimed, MSN Virtual Earth was cross-browser, I thought it safe to assume that given Firefox was available on Linux then it must very well be cross-platform as well.

But instead of just assuming I decided to boot into my install of Fedora Core 4 just to make sure MSN didn't have something funny going on behind the scenes.

The result?

See for yourself:


An enlarged view is available here.

For the record, this is an actual screen shot from an actual instance of Firefox running on an instance of Fedora Core 4. How can you know for sure? Well, if I could figure out how to take a full screenshot with toolbars and all, I could show you. Unfortunately, as much as I love the GNOME Desktop [1] I have way too much invested in my Windows dev tool experience to be able to use it as much as I would like. As such I haven't spent the time to figure out all of the details, such as how to take a screenshot of the entire screen as opposed just the active window (alt+PrtScrn works fine and as expected, but nothing else seems to be mapped as it is in Windows... if you happen to know and don't mind leaving a comment with a quick explanation, I'd appreciate it :) But don't take my word for it... Chances are good that if you doubt this to be the actual case, you yourself are running your very own Linux distro with your very own instance of Firefox 1.0.7 (unless you haven't upgraded yet, which if this is the case, you should;)

Ok, so we've established MSN Virtual Earth to be cross-browser/cross-platform - which is another way of saying "No. They haven't blocked out users who are not using Internet Explorer on Microsoft Windows." Definitely a step in the right direction. :)

Just to make sure, lets see how Google does using the same platform/browser combination as above:


Again, here's an enlarged view.

So far so good. Two products, two platforms, two browsers. (Google Maps/MSN Virtual Earth, Windows XP Pro/Fedora Core 4(Linux/GNOME), Internet Explorer 6.0/Firefox 1.0.7, respectively) [NOTE: While I haven't actually taken any screenshots of both of these products running inside of Internet Explorer on a WinXP Pro install, do I really need to? I promise, they both work in IE 6.0 on WinXP Pro (and I'm guessing 'WinXP Home', 'WinXP Media Edition', as well as 'Win2K3', 'Win2K', and any other version of Windows that IE 6.0 runs on - but I'm just guessing ;)]


In case you hadn't already noticed lets take a look at the difference in quality (speaking in terms of the images only at this stage) between the two products.

Same shot, this time with the added explanation that this is a shot from above of my apartment complex in downtown Salt Lake City, UT, USA [NOTE: This is with the zoom cranked to as high as it would go.]:


Again, an enlarged view is available here.

Not too shabby. And in some ways, a little scary just how close and how clear of a shot this is. But I'll let the conspiracy theorists who believe that such closeness and clarity means something all together different than a *REALLY NICE CAMERA* used onboard a *REALLY NICE SATELLITE* (or potentially a non-orbital aircraft of some sort) deal with that angle... I'm not that kind of conspiracy theorist (I only dabble in such things from time to time, the "weekend warrior version who's missed a few seasons yet still thinks he can ride 'just like he used to!'" kind of conspiracy theorist if you will. NOTE: If you have no clue what I just said... Ummm... I don't know what to tell ya... ask a friend maybe?)

Alright, now lets take a look again at Google Maps offering (again, this is a shot from above of my apartment complex in downtown Salt Lake City, UT, USA with the zoom cranked to as high as it would go.]:


One more time, here's an enlarged view.

Just so you can delete this from the list of possibilities, no this is not an image of a petrie dish experiment gone bad. This is the same apartment complex taken from maximum zoom from within Google Maps.

I would go on, but I like Google too much as a company to want to take this any further than it needs to go... you've seen the images, I'll let you judge which one you believe to be of better quality.


I think I'm going to save the features bit of this piece for another post as I haven't had enough time yet to really get a feel for all the features made available from MSN Virtual Earth. This, of course, would include any and all access to MSN Virtual Earth exposed via an API, something I know exists, but am unsure what all is made available as I haven't played with it yet. Suffice it to say I plan to and will report back once I have.

Until then, enjoy!

[QUICK-UPDATE: To avoid confusion Google Maps and Google Earth are two separate projects. While it may seem that the proper comparison should be between Google Earth and MSN Virtual Earth, this is not the case. While Google Earth provides a much improved experience the codebase, formerly known as Keyhole which was purchased by Google, runs exclusively on Windows 2000 and Windows XP. As far as I know there is no webified version of Google Earth and as a result the product doesn't qualify for the cross-browser, cross-platform nature of this post.

My apologies for not clarifying this point ahead of time.

In regards to the follow-up piece: I am currently researching what has turned into a fairly lengthy list of extensions that have already been developed for MSNs' Virtual Earth using the available API and associated "run-time" (Dare has a nice teaser piece from a few days ago.) Of course Google Maps has similar capabilities with the added benefit of being first to market. As such, they too have an impressive list of extensions utilizing the API they have made available. All-in-all (and with my Mapping Hacks and Web Mapping Illustrated titles in hand) this should lend well to a nice follow-up piece showcasing the strenths and weaknesses of both, with the final result bringing a better understanding as to which product makes the most sense for your particular projects needs.

And we haven't even touched Yahoo! yet :)]

[UPDATE(2005.10.04 15:52 MST): As mentioned in my follow-up comment to 'rlgura' I have added two(2) images to the wiki I created in response to this post. You can access both of them via:

Hotchkiss, CO (via Google Maps)

Hotchkiss, CO (via MSN Virtual Earth)

If you take a look at these images you will note that just as 'rlgura' made note, the clarity (and overall quality) of the MSN Virtual Earth image compared to the Google Maps version of the same area is pretty significant.

I guess you could argue that Google Maps version is in color. But when your'e trying to explain to your Aunt Bertha "our house is just to the left of the baseball field in >> "this >> [link to Google Maps || MSN Virtual Earth] << image" << I doubt much Aunt Bertha cares if the Google Maps version is in color... she's not going to understand what you mean.

Now maybe you don't like Aunt Bertha all that much anyways and would prefer that she didn't stop by on her "venture to 'SEE THE WORLD!'". If this is the case, I would probably choose Google Maps color version over the MSN VE black-and-white offering.

[DISCLAIMER: Usage of this advice is made on and by your own free will. If, because of my 'advice', Aunt Bertha decides to exclude you from her will... I'm not taking responsibility! :D]

[UPDATE(2005.10.04 16:29 MST): As per the original comment from 'rlgura' I have added images of Cleveland, OH to the same wiki. The links are as follows:

View of Cleveland, OH from Google Maps centered at or about St. Claire Ave NE and E. 9th St

View of Cleveland, OH from Google Maps centered at or about St. Claire Ave NE and E. 9th St.)

[1] : Regarding my love of the GNOME Desktop, I really do... It has by far and beyond won my desktop heart over. KDE? Let's just say that I believe in the principals of K.I.S.S., or Keep It Simple Stupid. It seems to me that the KDE folks could care less about foreplay, they want *all the action* and they want it now! GIMME, GIMME, GIMME, MORE, MORE, MORE - Kind of the adolescent who just hit puberty approach to the desktop, where as GNOME has had a chance to grow up a bit since then. Just my opinion, I'm sure you have yours...

Keeping your comments to the topic of Google Maps vs. MSN Virtual Earth (or answering my GNOME Desktop screenshot question, or, in other words not turning this into a GNOME vs. KDE debate based on my footnote comment) what are your thoughts? Is MSN Virtual Earth the clear winner thus far (features set aside for now until I have time to offer up more on this subject) or am I just not seeing things as 'clearly' as I think I am?


2005-10-02 11:38:47
Isolated Case?
Have you tried many different areas or just your apartment. I've found Google is much better in my area (or the areas I checked) and VE is better in others.
2005-10-02 16:27:29
Isolated Case?
It very well could be...

Has anybody else had similar results? I will spend some more time researching this as if this an isolated incident then its only fair to do Google justice and find this out for sure.

Thanks for the info! :)

2005-10-02 22:18:55
US only
Virtual Earth appears to only have detailed data for US locations (I've tried Australia and the UK and there's only limited data for both)

There does however, seem to be extremely detailed data for a place called Redmond, Washington

2005-10-02 23:52:03
US only
> Redmond, Washington

Hmmm... Redmond. I'm trying to think... I grew up in Kirkland, Washington and yet Redmond, Washington isn't ringing any bells. Do they have a post office? If not, that could be why. ;)

All kidding aside, what are your feelings regarding Google's 'view' of your part of the world? Is it safe to say that MS has invested heavily into the US Market whereas Google has focused more from a global standpoint?

I seem to remember a point in the Scoble/Channel9 video linked above in which is mentioned the use of low-flying aircraft to get extremely detailed images that, when coupled with imagery taken from earth bound vehicles, enabled them to create a somewhat three-dimensional experience, flattening from a 90 degree overhead/vertical perspective to a 180 degree ground level perspective. If I understand things correctly the point of this is to enable a much richer user-experience when accessing the system from a portable device in which you can quite literally access an eye-to-surface level view of your current location. I would imagine the primary focus would be tourism but I would assume that the potential for such capability is fairly substantial, especially in regards to emergency vehicle/search-and-rescue (city-level) and general public safety type situations.

With this in mind, I wonder if this is the reason for the difference in quality of the current US image base?

I'll see what I can find out... thanks for the info!

2005-10-03 10:30:51
Details in Cleveland, OH, USA
The zoom levels available at my place of work and my residence are about the same on MSN and Google, however, Google's are in color and much crisper images.
Sorry, Google's still got my vote.
2005-10-03 11:18:56
Details in Hotchkiss, CO USA
On a whim, just checked my hometown of Hotchkiss, CO (population 963) and MSN has a LOT more detail there. I cannot even zoom in to see the cross streets with Google.

So I guess it really depends on where each of them is licensing their satellite/aerial photography from, not really the power of their engines.

2005-10-03 12:36:52
Image Quality between Sites
All, I work for an aerial photography company which has supplied imagery to both the US government (thus into Virtual Earth) and Keyhole (through APUSA).

All of the high quality imagery is from airplanes. You are right in saying there is a big difference between different areas -- it takes a lot of expense to get high quality photos of an area. You can purchase imagery from other sources for higher quality and more up to date details.

Quality of imagery is not just related to the level of detail. You also should know when the photo was taken. Some areas are changing rapidly and the imagery can be old. I have noticed gross changes in GoogleEarth, where I knew the photos are more that 8 years old by what was shown, but there is no way to tell it on the interface. The date of the photo should be included on everyone of these websites because it really impacts the quality of the photo.

Feel free to write me directly if you have questions or want some help in this field. George --

2005-10-04 14:28:17
Image Quality between Sites
Hi George,

As you know, I've already replied in email but wanted to quickly follow-up your comments and thank you for your offer to help us all understand things a bit better in this area.

For the record (again, this was a part of my email to George) I completely agree with the point regarding the timestamping of a photo and the value something like this would bring to us, the end users of such systems as Google Maps and MSN Virtual Earth. But, as you mentioned in your follow-up response, a company would have to commit themselves to a consistent effort to keep the photos updated on a regular basis, something that could amount to a hefty price tag, passing the cost onto the customer base. When both proucts are available to users and developers at no cost (beyond the "advertisement tax") it makes such added bonus as timestamps a luxury I doubt much we will obtain. Bringing advertising revenue into the equation -- A balance between development costs and revenue obviously needs to be struck to make possible the services in the first place. While I couldn't say for sure one way or another, I have my doubts that the potential ad revenue is high enough for such luxuries to find there way into the products. I could be wrong (and hope I am!) but something tells me we won't be seeing timestamped photo's any time soon.

Its too bad. As you point out, with a constantly changing landscape, gaining a feel for when the photo was taken would be helpful in gaining a sense of just how reliable that photo is in its representation of any particular area of the world that it might represent.

None-the-less, your point is well taken and I appreciate the time you took to bring this point to the surface as well as your offer to help bring greater understanding of this process to the rest of us.

Best regards,

2005-10-04 14:49:44
Details in Hotchkiss, CO USA
Thanks for your comments! I have uploaded two pictures to the wiki I mentioned in my follow-up post, one from MSN Virtual Earth and the other from Google Maps of Hotchkiss, CO from the maximum zoom possible for this area.

As I am unable to add links via comments I will add them to the bottom of the original post.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

2005-10-04 15:39:36
Details in Cleveland, OH, USA
Again, thanks for taking the time to comment. I am unsure as to the exact point in Cleveland you were refering to, but I don't think its all that important (nor should you publicize such things for all of et.Al. land to see :) as I can see and agree, in general, to your point. The color image provided by Google is definitely nice, although I'm not sure if the image quality is all that much different. In fact it almost seems that MSNVE has a slight edge, but, as per your point, its tough to say for sure as the color image makes the distinction of landmarks a lot more clear than does the black and white version.

+1 for Google Maps :)

2005-10-04 15:41:41
Details in Cleveland, OH, USA
Oh, and I added the links to the images that I posted to the wiki to the bottom of this post.

Thanks again for both of your comments!

2006-04-08 14:38:58
M. David Peterson
2006-04-08 14:55:36

Obrigado, meu amigo! (isto é sobre todo o português que eu sei infelizmente)

2006-06-13 04:16:31
hi maps?