Map Wars (visiting Bing's imaging center)

Microsoft Bing Maps' datacenter

Everytime I fly I look at who is sitting next to me and wonder “I wonder what he/she does?”

Last week on the way to Boulder a guy was sitting next to me and he had a Dell laptop with Windows 7 loaded, and was doing Outlook email. I thought to myself “I bet he works for Microsoft.”

Turns out he was. It was Eric Waldman, who does licensing for Bing Maps.

We talked for the next couple of hours about the industry, and what he sees as the good things and problems. Talked about how Navteq and other companies control a lot of the data that you see in Mapquest, Google Maps, and on Bing and how Microsoft works with those companies to build unique data (Navteq’s cameras, for instance, are actually built by Microsoft and Microsoft shares a license for some of that data with Navteq).

He told me a story of how Microsoft was doing something that had never been done before: they are flying planes over nearly every inch of the United States in the next 18 months. Already 10% done. The previous “all USA” flight image gathering exercise took 10 years, he told me. There’s immense pressure on mapping teams, he told me, to always keep its data up to date.

He also made sure to point out that Microsoft’s on-car cameras are sharper than the ones Google is using and that Bing Maps includes at least four different imaging types: on road photos, 45-degree low-altitude aerial photos, high altitude plane photos, and satellite photos.

You can see that all when you visit a map of the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance. Compare to Google Maps of the same area and you’ll see that Microsoft is way ahead in imagery.

I still like the usability of Google’s Maps better, and Google doesn’t force me to download some plugin to see all of its imagery like Microsoft does, but that’s a little nit of mine. After installing Silverlight I see that Microsoft Maps has glorious imagery that makes Google’s imagery look lame (varies from location-to-location).

Anyway, all that high res imagery takes a lot of storage space. In the parking lot they built a sizeable data center that holds five petabytes of storage and a ton of machines in a small shipping container that basically is the kind of thing you see on the back of an 18-wheel truck. I was lucky enough to get a peek inside and a look at that, which I’m sharing here. The photo above is a picture inside the truck. Ever been surrounded by five petabytes of storage? It’s loud. Inside that truck they process all the imagery that comes in from cars and planes around the world.

In a separate audio interview after viewing the truck, you hear some of the details of what the Bing Mapping team does in Boulder, CO.An early version of Microsoft’s aerial camera, that they call “the ultra cam” is sitting in the lobby:

Microsoft Bing's aerial camera "UltraCam"

Industry insiders know that Apple is working on its own maps. What will they look like? What kind of imagery data is Apple capturing? I’m hearing rumors that Apple will release its mapping technology by the end of the year, we’ll see if that happens, but Microsoft told me that the investment they’ve made in making Bing Maps runs into many hundreds of millions of dollars. As one of the team members said in the audio interview there aren’t many companies that can do that.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this small look into Microsoft’s Bing Mapping team’s lair. Which maps do you like best?

Promiscuous Adoption: A tale of two companies

By now you know that Flipboard is one of my favorite new companies of 2010 and, while they’ve pretty much caught up to the initial demands on their servers, spent two weeks just getting slammed with new adopters. Mike McCue, the CEO there who has seen great Silicon Valley success (he sold TellMe to Microsoft for $800 million) told me he has never seen anything like it.

But compare that to Wowd, which came out yesterday. Here’s my video on Wowd:

Why didn’t Wowd get a huge amount of adoption? It’s counter intuitive. Flipboard is only usable on the iPad, which has sold a small fraction of the numbers of Macintosh and Windows computers are out there. Wowd was aiming at a far bigger potential market, but fell flat. Why?

Now part of the reason could be it got a poor review from ReadWriteWeb’s Sarah Perez. But as I read Sarah I noticed a bias, here, let me see if you can see it too: “But dealing with the first desktop app I’ve installed since TweetDeck reminds me of why I love the cloud – the processing power required is dealt with on their servers, not mine.”

I feel the same way! I +hate+ installing software. So much so that I almost didn’t install Wowd.

But, wait, I have 300+ apps on my iPhone and iPad. So, there’s a disconnect there.

I noticed this a few weeks ago when I was flying. I sat next to two guys. One had an iPad. It was loaded with apps that didn’t exist a year ago. The other was using a Windows XP machine. It didn’t have a single app that didn’t exist a year ago.

So, yesterday, I dug into my feelings about installing software.

Windows and Macintosh machines bring a lot of baggage to the table that make it mentally exhausting to install software. Here’s some of the things that were going through my mind when I installed Wowd yesterday:

1. Can I uninstall this easily? I’ve recently tried to clean up apps on my Mac. It took quite a while to find all the places apps hide crap.
2. Will it screw up my machine? I lived through many years of installing stuff on my Windows machines to watch them get slower, or start having crashes, or worse.
3. Will I fall in love with this app and want it on all my machines? (Installing software on all my machines is a pain in the behind).
4. Will I need to maintain this app in the future and find updates for it, or will it get updated itself?
5. Did the developers do something nasty to my machine and are they ethical about privacy and all that stuff (seriously, how many people install apps that report data back to some server that they aren’t aware of, etc)?

Then I thought back to Flipboard. I didn’t have any of these fears with that app. Why not?

1. Uninstalling an app on an iPad just requires you to hold your finger down on the app and clicking an “x.” It’s gone and there’s no little pieces left around.
2. I’ve loaded hundreds of apps on my iPad and it hasn’t gotten slower.
3. Loading an iPad app on all three of our iPads is much easier than installing it on three separate laptops.
4. Apps update easily on the iPad via the iTunes store.
5. Apps are approved by Apple so if an app does something nasty I can make a huge deal about how Apple is evil, etc.

This leads to promiscuous adoption. Some weekends I’ve loaded 50 or more apps on my iPhone or iPad to try them out. Heck, the only retardant to adoption is paying the app fee and I’ve often said “it’s only a latte” while trying out an app and more than not I come away with something much more valuable than a latte at the local coffee shop.

I’ve been asking around and both startups and big companies are telling me they are noticing the same thing. iPhone and iPad users are installing a lot more apps and are installing new things at a far greater rate than people who have Windows or Macintosh machines.

This has deep implications for where VC’s will invest in the future. I’m actually shocked that Wowd got funded with its approach of installing software on machines. It’s one of the few exceptions I’ve seen get funded this year that has taken that approach.

Anyway, do I have an opinion on Wowd? Yes. It isn’t ready for me yet. After installing I hit a bug (they are fixing it) that keeps their system from working well with large-friend accounts. Now that I have it installed I’ll try it again when they get an update out.

What does Wowd do? Help you filter your Facebook stream (Twitter coming soon) so that you can see more of the things you find valuable in your stream. Interesting idea, that’s somewhat what Flipboard does too (which is why I took the interview, because I’m looking for companies that will help us filter the noise out of our social streams).

But if I ran Wowd, I’d go server side so that people don’t need to install any software. That’s a LOT of baggage to overcome. It also makes Flipboard appear brilliant for going iPad only.

What do you think?

The story behind the 2010 startup success: Siri (why it's so important to Apple's future)

You know Siri. Back in February I said that if you miss Siri you’ll miss the future of the Web.

Apple didn’t miss it. Just a few days after that blog ran Apple bought Siri for somewhere around $200 million.

It is the 2010 startup success of the year.

But here’s the first part of the story behind the success from the people actually involved: the venture capitalists and the exec at one of the most important research labs in Silicon Valley, SRI International (it’s where the mouse was invented). The second part of the video will be up Thursday on Building43.

This is the most interesting conversation I’ve had so far this year about a startup. Some things you’ll learn:

1. Why this company is so strategic to Apple’s future.
2. What happened when Apple called.
3. Why this company is a continuation of work that Douglas Engelbart started in the 1960s.
4. What the secret sauce is behind Siri.
5. Why the venture capitalists backed this company (they got $10.5 million right before Apple bought them).
6. Why the code-name of Siri was “HAL.”
7. How Siri is the embodiment of ideas Apple introduced to the world in a video in the 1980s about the Knowledge Navigator.
8. Why Steve Jobs is excited about the artificial intelligence technology inside Siri.

This is the most interesting conversation I’ve had all year, hope you enjoy.