Map Wars (visiting Bing’s imaging center)

Microsoft Bing Maps' datacenter

Everytime I fly I look at who is sitting next to me and wonder “I wonder what he/she does?”

Last week on the way to Boulder a guy was sitting next to me and he had a Dell laptop with Windows 7 loaded, and was doing Outlook email. I thought to myself “I bet he works for Microsoft.”

Turns out he was. It was Eric Waldman, who does licensing for Bing Maps.

We talked for the next couple of hours about the industry, and what he sees as the good things and problems. Talked about how Navteq and other companies control a lot of the data that you see in Mapquest, Google Maps, and on Bing and how Microsoft works with those companies to build unique data (Navteq’s cameras, for instance, are actually built by Microsoft and Microsoft shares a license for some of that data with Navteq).

He told me a story of how Microsoft was doing something that had never been done before: they are flying planes over nearly every inch of the United States in the next 18 months. Already 10% done. The previous “all USA” flight image gathering exercise took 10 years, he told me. There’s immense pressure on mapping teams, he told me, to always keep its data up to date.

He also made sure to point out that Microsoft’s on-car cameras are sharper than the ones Google is using and that Bing Maps includes at least four different imaging types: on road photos, 45-degree low-altitude aerial photos, high altitude plane photos, and satellite photos.

You can see that all when you visit a map of the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance. Compare to Google Maps of the same area and you’ll see that Microsoft is way ahead in imagery.

I still like the usability of Google’s Maps better, and Google doesn’t force me to download some plugin to see all of its imagery like Microsoft does, but that’s a little nit of mine. After installing Silverlight I see that Microsoft Maps has glorious imagery that makes Google’s imagery look lame (varies from location-to-location).

Anyway, all that high res imagery takes a lot of storage space. In the parking lot they built a sizeable data center that holds five petabytes of storage and a ton of machines in a small shipping container that basically is the kind of thing you see on the back of an 18-wheel truck. I was lucky enough to get a peek inside and a look at that, which I’m sharing here. The photo above is a picture inside the truck. Ever been surrounded by five petabytes of storage? It’s loud. Inside that truck they process all the imagery that comes in from cars and planes around the world.

In a separate audio interview after viewing the truck, you hear some of the details of what the Bing Mapping team does in Boulder, CO.

An early version of Microsoft’s aerial camera, that they call “the ultra cam” is sitting in the lobby:

Microsoft Bing's aerial camera "UltraCam"

Industry insiders know that Apple is working on its own maps. What will they look like? What kind of imagery data is Apple capturing? I’m hearing rumors that Apple will release its mapping technology by the end of the year, we’ll see if that happens, but Microsoft told me that the investment they’ve made in making Bing Maps runs into many hundreds of millions of dollars. As one of the team members said in the audio interview there aren’t many companies that can do that.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this small look into Microsoft’s Bing Mapping team’s lair. Which maps do you like best?