MIT Technology Review

Friday, August 31, 2012

All Over the Map(s)

Bing Maps reaches a milestone, and Amazon teams with Nokia

Back in 2010, Microsoft began its Global Ortho Project, a plan to map every square inch of the Continental US and Western Europe at 30 cm resolution. On Thursday Bing announced that it had fulfilled the US portion of that promise. What’s meant by 30 cm resolution, incidentally? It means that a foot is equal to a pixel, and it amounts to something of an intermediate between a bird’s eye view and a street-level view, as a Verge commenter points out.

This journey began for Microsoft back in 2006 when the company acquired Vexcel Imaging and started improving its UltraCam aerial camera. We’re familiar with super-high-res images of cities and such, but it would appear that Bing’s offering is the first to do so of all remote areas, too. Bing singles out the Pueblo Bonito ruins, for example, which are rendered in impressive detail. Google Maps’s own version of the ruins isn’t so bad, to be honest, but Bing’s does appear to be a tad finer (and lacking annoying Google watermarks).

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the tech world map, Reuters reports that the next Kindle Fire (see “In Kindle News...”) will forego the more familiar Google Maps in favor of... Nokia.  Two sources tell Reuters that Amazon and Nokia are joining forces to make the Fire 2’s mapping app. Reuters added that Amazon will “add location capabilities” to the new tablet, which will require a GPS chip or WiFi triangulation. You may not have known this, but Nokia is a force in mapping, having acquired the Chicago-based Navteq in 2007, in a deal estimated around US $8.1 billion. Bing Maps and Nokia Maps are closely related, sharing a "unified map design"--part of a larger strategic partnership between Microsoft and Nokia (see "A Small Phone with Large Hopes").

What remains a tad unclear is just how Amazon’s acquisition of the New York-based 3D mapping startup UpNext fits into all this (see “Amazon Maps?”). Will UpNext be integrating its features with those of Nokia’s/Navteq’s mapping services? Or did Amazon snap up UpNext only to nip a potential competitor in the bud, or prevent a rival from acquiring them? As an analyst told CIO Today at the time of that acquisition: “The most likely bet is that this acquisition and any related development efforts are directed at offering proprietary mapping and potentially navigation services on future Kindle devices, which may include a smartphone.”

If 3D renderings of cities are a large part of the new Kindle Fire’s mapping app, then we’ll have a sense of whether UpNext’s DNA went into the devices mapping services at this iteration, or whether we’ll have to wait for the next round of Amazon devices to see the fruits, if any, of that acquisition.