Microsoft is about to upgrade its mapping product, Live Local, to Microsoft Virtual Earth, a competitor to Google Earth. [See news story.] We got a live preview of the product a few days ago and will have a hands-on review shortly. These impressions are based on the demo.
In a word: Wow. Microsoft is doing with its Earth program what I've wanted from Google for a while: creating one integrated mapping and globe-exploring service, not two products with different interfaces. With Virtual Earth, you get all of Microsoft's Live Local features (traffic data, e-mail integration, bookmarks) with the additional capability to zoom around the 3D planet and see your locations from any angle.
Microsoft, like Google, has 3D buildings in its virtual world, but Microsoft's are photo-realistic, not just gray boxes. There is expected to be 15 cities with 3D buildings at launch, with 100 by next summer. In the San Francisco city demo, the buildings looked great.
The service will have an API, so people can use the Virtual Earth globe in their own apps and mash-ups. However, don't expect too many people to create Virtual Earth mash-ups, since the service works only in Internet Explorer.
There are some other snags. The super-zoomed "bird's eye" view continues to have a different interface than the map and globe tools, and this might cause some confusion. And there's no Sketchup-like building-creation utility.
But Virtual Earth is great eye candy, and if you're an Internet Explorer user, the integration between it and Microsoft's online mapping product is very powerful.