Vintage Imagery from Virtual Earth

By now you’ve no doubt heard the one about MSN Virtual Earth “deleting” Apple’s headquarters. But it’s obviously not a case of Microsoft editing out its rivals; Microsoft is simply using very old imagery. For another example, the World Trade Center is still standing in Virtual Earth. The Manhattan imagery dates to before 2001, obviously; the imagery for Apple’s location apparently dates to 1991. It came out in the Slashdot discussion that they’re using USGS photography, the vintage of which varies from place to place. Not dating the imagery, if it’s not reasonably current, is a valid complaint.

I’m surprised that Microsoft left the older imagery up before they launched. Frankly, they should have waited — either delaying the implementation of higher-resolution imagery where new imagery was not yet available, or delaying the entire launch. Fourteen years is a long time, especially in fast-growing areas — long enough that there’s absolutely no value in providing that level of resolution that out of date: the closer you zoom in, the more important it is that you be up to date. Mapping data needs to be current.

(It wouldn’t have killed them to wait: there are plenty of other features not yet implemented — non-U.S. high-res photos, for example — and the often-touted oblique “bird’s eye” view, reported here, is apparently scheduled for a second round of updates later this year.)

It’s too bad. Virtual Earth is otherwise a relatively solid, though buggy, beta: the mouse behaviour is inconsistent and flaky, and you can’t scroll between Siberia and Alaska; the mapping parts, though, seem relatively solid. But this incident only reinforces the belief that Microsoft can’t ship a decent product the first time out. Given the intensity with which people have been playing with Google’s satellite mode, it was inevitable that this would be caught. This may well be an “Egg Freckles” or “Eat Up Martha” moment that seals Virtual Earth’s reputation in the long run.

In this context, this post from the Virtual Earth team touting the quality of their high-resolution imagery comes across as so much bravado. Now, of course, it inspires Schadenfreude, but I didn’t like the post even before we discovered how old the imagery was: it smacked of too much marketing — something Microsoft’s been guilty of before. Worry more about the fundamentals of the product before marketing the shit out of it. Posts like Chandu’s and even this one are helpful, but we can do without the trash talk.

See previous entry: MSN Virtual Earth Launches.