Google Maps vs. MSN Virtual Earth

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M. David Peterson

M. David Peterson
Oct. 02, 2005 03:43 AM

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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...

M. David Peterson is a software development consultant who specializes in XML, XSLT, C#, the .NET platform, and functional programming languages such as Lisp and Scheme. His first line of code was written in 1983 on a Timex Sinclair 1000 bought by his father. Currently residing in Salt Lake City, UT, he is the proud parent of his four-year-old son, Conner Max. You can visit his personal weblog at