Google Earth & Bing Maps Spanning the Virtual Globe

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SAN FRANCISCO — In anticipation of the United Nations climate change conference scheduled to occur in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, Google Inc. is presenting a series of narrated tours through its popular Google Earth program that allow viewers to explore the environmental impacts of climate change around the globe.

Tours created in Google Earth by Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups show where rising tides threaten coastal populations and warming temperatures imperil animal habitats.

The climate change tours are just one example of the continuous stream of features and improvements offered by Mountain View, Calif.-based Google to Google Earth, the popular program which combines satellite and aerial imagery with location-specific information to create a virtual globe, Google spokesman Aaron Stein said. In July, Google Earth began offering Google Moon, which offers satellite imagery of the lunar surface as well as information on Apollo missions and landing sites. In addition, Google continues to augment the images of Mars available in Google Mars with data from NASA’s Mars Odyssey mission’s Thermal Emissions Imaging System and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment.

Google Earth competitor, Bing Maps for Enterprise, which was known until June as Microsoft Virtual Earth, is another geospatial mapping platform used primarily by companies to embed maps and other relevant data into their own Web sites. Bing Maps for Enterprise uses satellite imagery, aerial photography and local listings to combine features of a virtual globe with road listings allowing corporate clients including Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Harley-Davidson Inc. to offer maps tailored to their customers, according to an official with Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash. One unique feature of Bing Maps for Enterprise is its ability to offer images of the same location taken from four different directions to let viewers see a building in its surrounding area. Bing Maps also offers bird’s-eye views of more than 100 major cities in the United States, Europe and Japan.

In contrast to Microsoft, Google separates its imagery and maps into two different products. Customers can find driving directions, the location of businesses such as restaurants and hotels and information on those businesses using Google Maps. For 3-D imagery and the ability to zoom in on precise locations, customers rely on Google Earth. “Google Earth offers a more immersive experience,” Stein said.

To make Google Maps more useful and eliminate the need to search the Web for additional information about businesses, Google began offering place pages in September, a feature that includes customer reviews and photographs. A place page for a restaurant, for example, would include the phone number, address, recent reviews and street views of the establishment. “We collect all the information that has to do with the location on one page,” Stein said.

Increasingly, Google Earth, Google Maps and Bing Maps also are migrating to cell phones and other portable devices. Last year, Google began offering a version of Google Earth designed specifically for the Apple iPhone. That version offers the same imagery available to users who download Google Earth from the Web, but includes fewer layers in each image to decrease the density of the data files, Stein said. In addition, Google Maps for Mobile is available on a variety of smart phones including Blackberries, iPhones and phones using the Palm, Android, Java and Nokia S60 operating systems. Similarly, Bing offers maps and driving directions on Windows Mobile Phones, Blackberries, Sidekicks and iPhones.

Mobile phone users also have another option. Sony Ericsson Labs, the program development arm of London-based Sony Ericsson, is beginning to offer a new mapping product for mobile phones and Web browsers. With the help of a map engine created by Swedish software developer Idevio, Ericsson Maps is hoping to overtake competitors like Google and Microsoft by offering streaming maps, according to Idevio Chief Executive Patric Nordström.

“Google and Microsoft are using an old technique where maps are transferred as images,” Nordström wrote in an e-mail. “Ericsson Web Maps uses a patented technology to stream and compress the map data. It is similar to how sound and video are streamed over the Internet.”

The result for the end users is faster access to imagery and a seamless experience when zooming in or panning across an image, according to Nordström. What is more, the high compression of the technology means less data is transferred, which lowers to cost of the data traffic, he added.