This week, Microsoft introduced a new version of its online local-search and mapping service, which it recently renamed from Virtual Earth to Windows Live Local, in keeping with the company’s desire to associate as many of its online services with Windows as possible. Windows Live Local is quite similar to related Google and Yahoo services, although it certainly offers some amazing and unique features. These services offer far more than merely a way to get from here to there.

I assume most Connected Home Express readers have fired up some kind of mapping service to get driving directions to a restaurant, vacation getaway, or other destination. The familiar combination of text directions and maps that these services supply are useful, but they're looking increasingly antiquated compared with some of the other features that modern services such as Windows Live Local offer.

For starters, the standard road-map view is increasingly being replaced by satellite or airplane photography that more accurately displays your location and directions. The most basic of these new views is an effective aerial view that comes from satellite imagery. The views are often stunning, and you can zoom them down to the street level. Most online search and mapping services offer such views.

Windows Live Local goes beyond this functionality with two unique views. The first, called Bird's Eye view, lets you view many areas in the United States as seen from a passing low-level plane. Compared with satellite imagery, Bird's Eye view offers far more detail and the imagery is often photographed at an angle for dramatic effect.

But Microsoft is testing a new feature that's even more impressive: street-level video. Available now only in San Francisco and Seattle, this new service-in-the-making literally offers street-level videos at three view angles simultaneously: straight ahead, to the left, and to the right. Viewed in conjunction with a more traditional map view, these street-level videos let you navigate around the test cities by using your PC's keyboard as a surrogate steering wheel.

Aside from the obvious need to expand these services internationally, it might seem that there's not much that Microsoft could do to improve online search and mapping services. However, this week, the software giant surprised me by proving that's not the case at all. The latest version of Windows Live Local provides an interesting glimpse at the future of such services.

First, the US version of Windows Live Local provides real-time traffic-flow and incident reporting via Traffic.com. So, when you get directions to a destination, you can factor that information into your driving decisions.

Second, a new social-networking feature called Collections will let you store lists of destinations and locations and save them to the Internet. Unfortunately, Windows Live Local doesn't (yet) offer a community feature that will let you discover others' favorite locations. But you can save your Collections to an MSN Space blog or send them via email or Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's instant messaging (IM) solution. The goal is clear: People will create Collections that detail favorite restaurants and other locations, and in the future, when you visit certain places, you can view the most highly rated Collections in the area and use that information to help determine places you'll eat at and visit.

And that, really, is where Windows Live Local—like many online services—gets interesting. In the same way that blogs and RSS feeds have let anyone publish information online in easy and discoverable ways, Windows Live Local's budding community features will eventually form the foundation for a fascinating number of mash-ups—that is, Web applications that combine data from two or more sources into a cohesive single view that takes on a life of its own. Imagine a travel site, for example, that includes satellite imagery of cities such as Paris, London, or Milan. On the maps, pushpins could highlight key tourist sites, and embedded links could lead you to videos or photos that show off everything the area has to offer.

Naturally, simple directions will always have their place. But there's a reason Notepad and Microsoft Word can coexist on your PC, too. Each has its place. In the near future, where you are and where you want to be won't be as interesting as what you can do along the way. Services such as Windows Live Local will show you how to get there.