Microsoft’s maps gaining on Google’s

April 16, 2007, 7:08 AM UTC

I have become a fan of Google’s (GOOG) online tools for the same reason I’m fond of Apple’s devices; they’re well designed and easy to use, even though they don’t have all the features that some competitors offer. In the world of Web services, Google has learned that an extra second of load time can mean the difference between me using its tool or a competitor’s, and one “Wow”-inducing feature is enough to tempt the crowds to try a service.

So I’m surprised at myself this morning, because I’m tempted to switch to Microsoft (MSFT) Live Maps.

Microsoft Live Maps launched with some fanfare a few months ago, but I didn’t really care. I have been using online maps for years, starting with those from Yahoo (YHOO); I switched to Google Maps for the quicker load times and the AJAX-fueled dragging tools. I didn’t see any reason to jump to Microsoft.

That is, I didn’t until now. Over the weekend I was playing with online real estate tool Zillow, and I ran across the most useful 3D maps I’d ever seen. Unlike Google’s 3D maps, with which you’d be hard pressed to identify any real-life landmarks from the bird’s eye view, with these maps I could identify places I’d been based on the images. The pictures were more crisp, and I could drag them smoothly in my browser (Firefox version in Mac OS X Tiger). I was pretty surprised when I saw a Microsoft logo on the page.It’s not that Microsoft is incapable of making great software and online services. It’s that for some reason, the company typically chooses not to do it. I often find myself willing to try some new Microsoft technology, like Microsoft Live Office, only to find that the free version is completely useless. It’s as though no one told Microsoft it’s an also-ran online right now, and it needs to impress us with its product design to build an audience. Google and Yahoo know they need to wow us, but somehow Microsoft didn’t get that memo.

Or maybe the company just did. A couple of weeks ago, Microsoft added 3.8 terabytes of image data to its maps, and now they’re an amazing and useful tool. (For an example and a comparison with Google Maps, click here.) Unfortunately, overall load times for Microsoft Live Maps are still not quite comparable with Google’s, and I can’t get the traffic feature to work at all in my browser. But Microsoft’s online service has my attention. And that’s something I haven’t been able to say about Microsoft for a long time.