May 18, 2006


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Super highway information
Online mapping war heats up
By John “jaQ” Andrews

Giving directions is becoming a lost art.

More and more, you hear the recommendation, “just MapQuest it.” Armed with the address of your destination, you can head to any one of a number of online mapping sites and get turn-by-turn directions.

A war is brewing now to out-quest MapQuest. Internet giants Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! are all offering more interactive and intuitive mapping sites that not only give more accurate directions, but look prettier doing it.
First, the geek darling, Google. They were the first to offer large, scrollable maps that you could grab with your mouse pointer and move around without waiting for the rest of the page to load over and over again. Zoom in, zoom out, scooch the map over a bit to get a better view — users finally had a free online map that was as intuitive as the old paper standby.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. You can only define a starting point and end point, no stops in between. The satellite photos are nifty, but all too often they’re blurry and useless when you zoom in too far.
In stepped Microsoft with their beta of Windows Live Local. This site looked a lot — a lot — like Google Maps, but with some important improvements. First, you can add a pushpin anywhere by simply clicking on the map or searching again and adding the result to your “Scratch Pad,” a list of locations that hovers in front of your map. The satellite photographs are orders of magnitude crisper and more detailed; in some areas, the site even has “Bird’s Eye” imagery available, low-altitude photographs of just a few city blocks at a time.

The bad stuff? Still only start and end points for directions. This is particularly annoying on Microsoft’s site, because their MSN MapPoint site used to do multi-point directions beautifully. A couple years ago, that functionality disappeared. Oddly enough, it exists in Microsoft’s commercial software that you can buy at your friendly computer superstore.

Microsoft’s interface also leaves something to be desired. Various control panels float in front of your map, obscuring your view. Most can be turned off, but the directional scroll-and-zoom box stays put in one corner no matter what. This really gets my goat in the Bird’s Eye photographs, because they don’t continuously scroll like the maps and satellite photos — each is of a finite area. Some portions are permanently hidden behind that box. Some are even hidden behind the translucent top quarter of the screen.
Yahoo!’s new site again bears a suspicious resemblance to Google’s. The biggest difference is that there’s no way to make the map stretch all the way across your screen. It also made the unfortunate decision to put the zoom-in control below the zoom-out control. (At Google, up is in and down is out; at Microsoft, right is in and left is out.) It actually makes the most sense if you think about it — you go down to get closer to the ground — but it’s the opposite of online map convention for close to a decade.

But, ooh, multi-point directions. You can even move the points around to experiment with different routes. That’s swell. And the photos are just as good as Microsoft’s.

More competition can only make online mapping better. And if it encourages folks to get off the computer and go somewhere in real life, all the better.

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