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?

Published by

Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, Scoble travels the world looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology for Rackspace's startup program. He's interviewed thousands of executives and technology innovators and reports what he learns in books ("The Age of Context," a book coauthored with Forbes author Shel Israel, has been released at http://amzn.to/AgeOfContext ), YouTube, and many social media sites where he's followed by millions of people. Best place to watch me is on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/RobertScoble

Comments

  1. Google is worthy of our respect. Anyway, the resolution is not the most important. Navigation in Bing becomes very difficult.

  2. “Google doesn’t force me to download some plugin to see all of its imagery like Microsoft does” what you mean other than flash? Just because you had it didnt mean it wasnt needed ;-)

  3. Knowing where things are is a beautiful thing…keeping up to date is priceless.

    Apple may reinvent the space and probably with a foursquare-like checking in process built-in to add another layer to their data capturing services but it'll likely be walled off to Apple users only. For those that are hardware agnostic, Google will likely create more compelling reasons to stay in their 'party'.

    Bottom line for businesses will always be, how will all this tech help them make them $?

    Thanks Robert!

  4. I think that MAYBE MS is going after more than just the casual user. Yeah, for you maps and imagery are all about routing, but creating a service of high quality imagery including obliques will do wonders for the GIS divisions in cities. By just paying for those services, opposed to having to pay to have them flown will save them thousands if not millions of dollars.

    But you're right Google's imagery does make a pretty backdrop

  5. If I compare the two maps, I see Google mas more detailed with secondary roads. The satellite view is about the same. Aerial view is indeed nicer and slower in Bing, but how can this be useful? And google has street view, I can't see it on bing.

  6. I live in the Philippines and I find Bing Maps unusable because of their hugely inaccurate street maps and the really old satellite imagery. Sure, Google's Philippine street map data is user-generated via Mapmaker, and a huge chunk of Quezon City is currently covered by clouds in the Google Maps imagery (but then, same goes in Bing), but at least Google is giving an effort to reach out to non-Western Internet users who need mapping information.

  7. Microsoft Bing is useful in American countries were detailed maps are available and in other countries i prefer Google maps just because they have details for secondary roads too. Bing fails to guide me here in India.