Up your street - Microsoft's take on Streetview
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".
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...