Bing Maps’ New Beta: Interesting, Promising, Erratic

By  |  Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 1:38 pm

At a press event in San Francisco this morning, Microsoft demonstrated recent, brand-new, and upcoming features it’s adding to its Bing search engine. The big news: The company is launching a beta of a major upgrade to Bing Maps. The beta is available here–and for the sake of comparison, here’s the existing version of Bing Maps, which remains the default.

From my experience so far, the new Bing Maps may be a true beta in the “we’re still working on making it work” sense: It sometimes performed very slowly, or conked out altogether. (Disclosure: I’m trying it on an EVDO connection, which probably doesn’t help.) The new version requires Microsoft’s SilverLight browser plug-in to work, which will be a source of controversy: There are folks who dislike plug-ins in general, and some who have a particular distaste for SilverLight. And since SilverLight is far from universal, there’s a good chance you’ll need to install it before you can test-drive the new Bing Maps.

It is, of course, inevitable that any discussion of Bing Maps will use Google Maps as a frame of reference. The new Bing Maps preserves some features that Google Maps doesn’t have, such as birds-eye aerial photography that shows cityscapes in perspective, not from above. It finally adds a counterpart to Google’s Street View street-level photography: Bing calls its version StreetSide, and it’s available for 100 U.S. metropolitan areas to start. (The interface is really similar to Google’s down to the use of a doppelganger of Google’s Pegman to help you navigate your way around.)

And it tries to surge ahead of Google Maps in some respects–my favorite of which is Map Apps, a series of optional map overlays provided by Microsoft and others. They include everything from maps of major world cities to offbeat roadside attractions.

Oh yeah, there’s also a Twitter Map app, which lets you view Tweets for a neighborhood you’re perusing–pretty nifty.

The new Bing Maps also integrates Microsoft’s clever Photosynth 3D photocollage feature. But clumsily so, at least in my encounters: It devotes prime real estate to promoting Photosynths near your geographic searches, but doesn’t indicate what the Photosynth is of until you click on it. (When I did a search for San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, high atop Nob Hill, Bing Maps kept urging me to view a Photosynth which turned out to show Union Square.)

So is there any benefit from Bing Maps’ use of SilverLight, versus Google Maps, which depends on open-standard AJAX programming techniques and doesn’t require any browser plug-ins? Yes, at least a little: Bing’s maps zoom in and out more fluidly, and wandering around StreetSide views provides a more smoothly-rendered experience than Street View, which can get choppy. SilverLight also enables the Photosynth integration. I said in a Tweet that the new Bing Maps might be the first (non-Olympics-related) SilverLight app good enough to induce a lot of people to install SilverLight, but now I’m not so sure: I wanna see if the slow and erratic experience I’m getting is a temporary quirk or an ongoing issue. (And if you’re the type with a deep, instinctive dislike of plug-ins, I’m not sure that there’s anything in Bing Maps that’ll make a believer of you.)

In any event, I’m rooting for Microsoft to keep plugging away at Bing Maps in particular and Bing in general until the world sees them as serious rivals to Google’s offerings. With Yahoo’s planned exit from the search innovation wars, Bing is the closest thing that Google has to serious competition. Even if Google remains the leader, I’d love to see it running scared, at least a little bit.

If you check out the Bing Maps beta, let us know what you think.


Read more: , ,

5 Comments For This Post

  1. Nate Lawrence Says:

    Unfortunately your following question contains false thinking and invites others to join you in it:
    “So is there any benefit from Bing Maps’ use of SilverLight, versus Google Maps, which depends on open-standard AJAX programming techniques and doesn’t require any browser plug-ins?”

    A: Google Street View uses Adobe Flash which is as much a plugin as they get. Near ubiquity does not change the fact that it is a plugin.

    B: The primary Bing Maps site remains an AJAX app and I simply can’t imagine them thoroughly deprecating it in favor of a Silverlight-only offering.

  2. James Webster Says:

    Dude, the technology is called ‘Silverlight’ not ‘SilverLight’.

    I agree its a little beta, trying it out myself crashed Firefox; which is either Firefox or the Silverlight plugin’s fault.

    Still looks pretty impressive though… as someone who is interested in Silverlight development I would be very impressed if they come up with some kind of plug-in model to have my own Silverlight code run within Bing Maps.

  3. sporkinum Says:

    I hit it using Firefox with the moonlight plugin. Microsoft boots you out if you aren’t using their flavor of Silverlight. Might be understandable as a beta, but if they are trying to get people to use Silverlight technology, they are going to have to open it up to moonlight as well.

  4. Nate Lawrence Says:

    Sporkinum, it is a little more complex than that. The Bing Maps Beta is a Silverlight 3 app and Moonlight is as of this writing still only Silverlight 1 compatible. See for details.

    They are super close to finishing Silverlight 2 compatibility but the beta has been lingering right before the finish line for about three months now. See for details.

    As I understand it, the Moonlight team has even been building some Silverlight 3 components into the Moonlight 2 beta (see for more information), but they will have to finish Moonlight 3 (full Silverlight 3 compatibility) before you can load the Bing Maps Beta with Moonlight.

    I have been very frustrated at this game of catch up for some time now as Novell was to have finished Moonlight 2 in September and was still using a Silverlight 2-based viewer in September. Since then, though, the Photosynth team has rewritten their viewer as a Silverlight 3 app (which truly did need to be done for performance reasons) which puts Moonlight users that much further away from being able to participate in the Photosynth community.

    Again with Silverlight 4 already being in beta and promising huge gains in performance (at least for out of the browser apps running with full trust which enables full GPU acceleration) I suspect that the Bing Maps team will want to rewrite their control to take advantage of Silverlight 4's capabilities ASAP. (Reading over the number of reviews which say that the Bing Maps Beta runs slowly on their machines, I'm guessing the Bing Maps team will want to move to Silverlight 4 as soon as it is stable.) This of course means that Moonlight users will suffer a similar fate with Bing Maps as they have so far with Photosynth UNLESS the Linux community steps up and helps Novell speed up the development of Moonlight OR unless Microsoft develops its own Linux version of Silverlight proper. For many reasons I think that Novell developing Moonlight as an open source Silverlight clone is probably a better fit for the Linux community, but there have been rumours of Silverlight proper coming to Moblin Linux. (See here for more details: .)

  5. swami_worldtraveler Says:

    @Nate: Haha, funny meeting you here:) See you ’round…

1 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Google/Bing: Minimalism vs. Maximalism | Technologizer Says:

    […] rising star. In the morning, I attended a Bing press event. It was highlighted by the debut of a feature-packed new version of Bing Maps, but also included demonstrations of how you can get weather reports from three different providers […]