This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. PDT with a new headline, and additional comment from Microsoft.
Microsoft has taken the covers off a future update to its Bing Maps service that removes the need for its Silverlight browser plug-in to view an alternate mapping layer, and has also announced that it plans to remove its 3D map viewer. The changes will arguably make the service more approachable to the masses, but indicate that the company is going in a different direction with its online tools and technology platforms.
In a post on the Bing community blog, Bing Maps Product Manager Brian Hendricks detailed two big changes to the company's online mapping service.
The first of those is the removal of the 3D maps layer, which lets users see 3D renderings of some buildings, as well as landscape topography. Microsoft first introduced the 3D feature in early 2007, and it's since come to include nearly 70 cities around the world.
To make sure the removal of 3D doesn't litter the Web with a bunch of non-working URLs, the company is changing every map link, map tour, and desktop shortcut to simply direct users to whatever part of the map the 3D version had been pointing to. Buildings that had been 3D models before will also become pushpin locations.
The other change coming to Bing Maps is more subtle and may even go unnoticed by many. Users no longer need to have Silverlight installed to use Bing Maps' bird's-eye view. This is the isometric view that the company has used in addition to top-down photography to give users a better sense of two-dimensional scale. Here's the difference compared to your standard aerial view:
According to Hendricks, this change was due to the company's efforts with Ajax, which, as Hendricks notes, allows people to use the feature "without custom plug-ins for individual features." That also means bird's-eye view will work on mobile devices that may not have been able to run the Silverlight runtime.
The changes go along well with Microsoft's push to implement Web standards in the browser, as was presented at the company's Professional Developers Conference, which took place last week. But at the same time, it also muddles the message the company has been pushing since yesterday, that it still believes Silverlight to be an important technology, and one that can differentiate itself from existing Web services. Saying the same thing can now be done with Ajax, the technology Silverlight was utilized to replace just less than a year ago, does not say much for its future as part of the company's online services strategy.
Update: A Microsoft spokesperson has released a statement clarifying some of the changes mentioned in the company's post:
Today's announcement on the Bing Maps blog was around the end of life of the Active X-based 3D Map control and it has nothing to do with our commitment to Silverlight. We continue to invest in Silverlight functionality, which delivers the richest possible experience for our users; specifically through our map apps that run in the browser on the PC and the Silverlight map control for Windows Phone 7 applications.