Microsoft Corp. has upgraded its online mapping service to include three-dimensional tours of 15 U.S. cities, marking another step in its dogged pursuit of Internet search leader Google Inc.
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With the improvements unveiled Monday, Microsoft is hoping to upstage Google's popular "Earth" software, which enables about one-third of the world's population to obtain an aerial view of their homes and neighborhoods.
Google says it has distributed more than 100 million free copies of the Earth software since its June 2005 introduction.
Microsoft, the world's largest software maker, is touting its 3-D version of "Virtual Earth" as a more compelling alternative that provides "photorealistic" images of the 15 targeted cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Baltimore, Atlanta, Denver, Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.
Additional cities are expected to be added in upcoming months.
"We think this is going to open a new dimension in search," said Stephen Lawler, general manager of Virtual Earth. "It's the beginning of the 3-D Web."
To celebrate the upgrade, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft will host a Monday evening party in San Francisco, about 35 miles north of Google's headquarters Mountain View headquarters.
Google so far has been able to brush aside Microsoft's competitive threats during the past two years to maintain its wide lead in Internet search and generate earnings growth that has mesmerized Wall Street. Google's stock price has increased by more than fivefold since its August 2004 initial public offering; Microsoft's shares have inched up by just 6 percent during the same period.
Executives from Microsoft and Google are among a long list of prominent Internet leaders scheduled to appear at a three-day industry conference called "Web 2.0" that begins in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Many of the conference presentations are expected to highlight gee-whiz technology like Microsoft's 3-D maps.
The Virtual Earth service, available at Microsoft's live.com site, is designed to work in a Web browser without opening another application — a convenience that Google Earth doesn't currently offer.
Microsoft also is offering online advertisers a chance to place marketing messages on artificially manufactured billboards dotting the 3-D landscapes. Google also shows ads in its mapping service, but those appear in more mundane thumbnails pointing to a specific location.
In a statement, Google welcomed Microsoft's mapping improvements while signaling its intention to protect its turf. "We will continue innovating to provide users with the fastest and easiest search experience on the Web," Google said.