This week, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates showed off an upcoming service called MSN Virtual Earth that will compete with Google's recently unveiled Google Earth. Both projects add satellite-based imagery to map-based location and directions searches. But Microsoft's entry goes far beyond Google Earth, adding stunning aerial images that are taken at a 45-degree angle, not straight down. Microsoft says that MSN Virtual Earth will be publicly available in the next 2 weeks.
  
Microsoft has signed a 5-year deal with Pictometry International to use the company's US-based aerial imagery in MSN Virtual Earth. "With Microsoft's use of Pictometry imagery incorporated into MSN Virtual Earth, customers will literally see around everything they search for online where Pictometry images are available," said Richard Kaplan, Pictometry's president and CEO. "MSN Virtual Earth will redefine the way people find, discover, and plan activities. We are thrilled that Pictometry will be part of creating these new and important experiences."
  
Google's service builds on satellite imagery developed by Keyhole, which Google purchased in October 2004. Like the original Keyhole software, Google Earth will be a fee-based service that requires users to download software to view satellite imagery. The Keyhole-based product can produce stunning images of areas that are photographed with high-resolution film.
  
Pictometry's unique 45-degree angle photos, however, which are taken from light aircraft, provide more detail. Law enforcement agencies and the US government use the Pictometry images exclusively. Microsoft says it will also integrate the technology into the PC-based Microsoft MapPoint products.