Bing Maps Loves "Map Theater," and Could Help Microsoft's TV Push

Last Updated Jun 7, 2010 1:30 PM EDT

Many have scoffed at Bing's (MSFT) "decision engine" marketing, but the moniker is increasingly accurate in Bing Maps, if not elsewhere. In the last several months, the Google (GOOG) Maps rival has poured its resources into making urban areas crowd-mapped in 3-D, even going so far as allowing deep integration of photos and videos taken in pedestrian-only areas like farmer's markets (see the video below). Whereas Google Maps seems more interested in getting you to a destination, Bing, by contrast, has seemed more focused on helping you ascertain whether or not you want to be there.

Those intentions are increasingly borne out by how developers decide to use the respective platforms. EveryScape, a Boston-based local search company that builds on Bing Maps, today announced a new Boston restaurant app that is notable because it crystallizes where Bing sees its strengths. The app allows users to view the interiors and exteriors 1300 different Beantown restaurants in 3-D, so that users can get a feel for what they're in for at any given place.

Sure, that might take a little bit of the thrill out of your nightlife -- you'll already know the best seat in the house before you walk in the door -- but it's also a testament to the way that the Bing Maps team is using Microsoft Silverlight, which underpins Bing's visual rendering (along with a few other proprietary technologies). It makes sense that Silverlight's other major winning application to date has been Netflix (NFLX) Watch Instantly. The Bing team seems to conceive of Maps mostly as a virtual reality engine, an entertaining relative of Netflix and other related tools. (Not that this is a bad thing -- not at all.)

Google, for its part, has been more interested in data: large-scale mapping applications and research-driven improvements. One example is a recent improvement to Google Maps API v3, which proudly makes accommodations for large volumes of markers and features -- up to 50,000 points on one map. That's particularly helpful for Maps apps that feature lots of detailed plot-points, like this third-party app for locating mountain bike trails.

Bing, by contrast, has been building out its "map theater," to coin a phrase: uncanny Deep Zoom infrastructure, which gives users incredibly streamlined transitions between satellite views, street-side views, 3-D user-gen Photosynths. Google Maps still relies on its rather inglorious, pixellated zoom transitions, but has been working on its platform's original forte: directions, be they for bicycle or for rush-hour. The Google team makes its priorities clear on a recent Geo Developers blog post:

Recently one feature request in particular has been head and shoulders above the rest in terms of the number of stars it has attracted.... The Directions Web Service is a companion to the existing Geocoding and Elevation Web Services, and allows applications to obtain Driving, Bicycling, and Walking directions through an XML/JSON REST interface. All of the features of the Map API v3 Directions service are supported, including "avoid highways", "avoid tolls", and waypoint optimization (travelling salesman solver).
Bing's platform improvements, some of which do include work on directions, have lately seemed to prioritize so-called "human scale," or street-level, mapping, and the term "visual experience" pops up a lot in the Bing Maps teams' own blogging. Google doesn't talk much on its own Geo blog about user experience, but instead about providing its developers with frameworks, programming objects and paradigms to work with. The divergence makes Bing and Google Maps seem less like competitors (though they clearly are) and more like supplementary services: while Bing is focused on the straight-to-consumer appeal, Google seems more driven to be on the backend of other peoples' map tools.

Both strategies are viable for gaining repeat users, but they also make the Bing vs. Google contest more of an apples-to-oranges affair. Just which fruit consumers prefer isn't clear, and neither Bing nor Google market-share statistics are broken down by maps and search, so growth is hard to gauge. But Microsoft might end up striking gold if its incipient TV platform can integrate with Bing Maps, allowing the growing thrill of "map theater" into the living room.