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Up your street - Microsoft's take on Streetview

Rory Cellan-Jones | 07:59 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

If you live in London you may see a car with cameras mounted on the roof coming down your street over the coming weeks. You are likely to assume that it's those folks from Google refreshing the Streetview service which shows views along just about every road in the UK. But you'd be wrong - the car will be operated by Google's deadly rival Microsoft.

As it tries to make its Bing search engine a more potent rival to the company that dominates search, Microsoft is sending its cars across London to start building something called Streetside. This service is already available in the United States and is now coming to Europe. According to Microsoft, Streetside "provides a true-to-life view you can explore to get a feel for a place and plan your activities. Travel along streets, view storefronts and parks, and navigate to destinations without an address".

Microsoft Streetside car

Ah, you might think, that sounds just like Streetview. No, no, says Microsoft, it's very different. For one thing, we won't be going up every street, just sticking to downtown areas and tourist locations. For another, we will be far more careful about telling everyone in advance that we are doing this.

When Google was gathering the images for Streetview it ran into a number of privacy rows, notably when residents of a village near Milton Keynes forced the driver of one of its cars to turn around and depart because they were unhappy about his cameras peering over their hedges.

So Microsoft has set up a website and a telephone hotline with information about where its Streetside cars will be. It is also promising that, like Google, it will blur faces and car number plates, and it says this:

"We accept requests to blur or remove images of faces or persons, homes, cars, acts of violence, nudity and unlawful material."

Above all, it stresses that it is not going to be scooping up personal data from home wi-fi networks as Google did in the incident which caused the biggest single row over Streetview . Though it turns out that anonymous data from wi-fi networks plays a vital role - alongside GPS technology - in building an accurate picture of location, so Microsoft would like to use it eventually.

But given the scale of this task, and the privacy issues, why on earth does Microsoft want to spend time and money building something that will be a lot less comprehensive than Google's Streetview? Because, the company explains, location-based services are about to become a huge business and Bing cannot compete with Google in that market without its own street-level imagery.

But do consumers really get any benefit from having two rival sets of cars heading up their streets taking photos? It is as if two rival electricity companies both decided to lay power lines down the same street. Perhaps we need Streetview to be made open-source, a national grid or public good that anyone could use for a fee set by a regulator. Just a thought...


  • Comment number 1.

    Microsoft have been demoing technology called PhotoSynth for a while. It looks like like Streetview but has better caching and offers a smoother experience. It allows you to look around in a fluid motion almost as if you are standing in the street. It's not perfect but it's a lot smoother than Google's service. I doubt that it's going to change the world but at least someone is trying to improve the service to the user.

    Why should Google make something Open Source just because it's successful? They had the ambition to try something new and it's really worked for them. With competition like this they will be encouraged to keep improving StreetView. Competition is good surely?

  • Comment number 2.

    Imagine it was a government job with no competition – it would take years, cost far too much and not do as intended. As much as leaving such things to private companies can lead to issues (such as loss of privacy) the speed and turn around of development because you’ve got another competitor on the track is a good thing, at the very least Microsoft efforts will make Google redouble theirs and stop them sitting back and becoming lazy.

  • Comment number 3.

    If they are announcing where they will be I hope it inspires lots of people to pose for photos.

    My favourite streetview was the guy who setup a whole mad scientists Lab in his garage.

  • Comment number 4.

    Firstly I'm glad you mentioned this: "Though it turns out that anonymous data from wi-fi networks plays a vital role - alongside GPS technology - in building an accurate picture of location."

    I've always thought this was a clever idea by Google - the ability to triangulate a users position using Wifi, so as to not be totally reliant on GPS. Shame about the privacy issues though.

    I can see Google aiming to use all the information collected from there services such as "Places" and more recently "Hotpot" to augment into Streetview. I'm sure Microsoft can also see the potential in this, after all, a couple of days ago they released "Bing for Business" which is sort of their equivalent of Google Places.

  • Comment number 5.

    I can see a competition opening up here once Microbodge publish the list of locations: the Flashmob people will be trying to get as many people in the location as possible, someone will have a 'Guess where I am?' website with all the photos of where he appeared in the image, and google will be putting their vehilces out on every road that is being filmed. and me I'll be moving my car so it doesn't appear anywhere at all.

  • Comment number 6.

    I would make more sense to open up Google's data.

    I can't see the point of having a queue of cars waiting to photograph my street, but I can see the point of having competing services using the data.

  • Comment number 7.

    Google came up with it and it was a good idea. Why should they make it open source? they invested a lot into it and can expect to get a healthy return on it.

    The only way to make it open source would be to set up a company to buy it from Google and then lease it back to whoever wants to use it. But you could do that in today's economic climate... If you could put an estimate on the value of the Streetview data, what would it be? Could you imagine any bank or investment funds that would be willing to invest that kind of money with the sure knowledge that it will be years before they see any returns.

    No. Streetview will remain with Google. If Microsoft wish to offer a similar service, then they will have to collate their own data, or alternatively purchace/lease the data from Google - But would Google be willing to deal, as they cannot be forced to. Would Microsoft be willing to deal? Since they are already planning to collate their own, then this seems unlikely, but this could be smoke and mirrors to make Google feel presurised into making a deal.

    All speculation, of course.

  • Comment number 8.

    Sounds like an opportunity missed to me, it may be slightly better (as per #1), but I just feel like if they're going to undertake an operation like this they should be trying to break new ground and do something revolutionary... no doubt Google are already working on a next generation version!

  • Comment number 9.

    #4 on the wifi location data.

    When I first activated my Android phone, it knew where I was (right down to house number / street name). Initially I thought this must be something it was getting from the cellular network or GPS, but I have really patchy mobile coverage here and the GPS was turned off and it still knew where I was.

    Then I went out (with my 3G data turned off) and it didn't know where I was, even though it could obviously still see the mobile network. ie the celleular network was not able to locate me. Finally I went to a friends house and jumped on their wifi and bingo, my Android knew where I was again.

    This could not be happening by ip address because if I look that up geographically, it tells me I am in Milton Keynes (60 miles away). The only way that Android could have known where I was, was if the wifi access points were all somehow indexed and fed back through the maps app.

    At first I thought it ridiculous that a Street Map car had bothered to drive down my road - it is not as if there are any tourist attractions nearby and I cannot really think of a legitimate reason why someone would need or want to use street view for my road. But I checked and like most people, we are on there.

    Maybe I am just getting old, but I found this spooky.

  • Comment number 10.

    So i heard. They could have been more original and named it something other than 'street' Sure nobody can copyright the word street but Microsoft will always be accused of copying Google

  • Comment number 11.

    The analogy to power lines is ridiculous. Power lines are dedicated infrastructure that requires digging up the road etc. This is just a car driving up and down taking pictures.

    Having said that, I would prefer Microsoft to invest more resources in updating their aerial photography, which is many years out of date compared to Google.


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