geoinformatics 2006 vol03

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geoinformatics 2006 vol03

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  • Microsoft's Proposed Take-O vePart of a Global Heavyweight StruggleMicrosoft's Proposed Take-O ve

    I - Introduction & BackgroundThe background to this proposed take-over ofVexcel - which has still to receive regulatoryapproval from the appropriate authorities inthe U.S.A. and Europe - is the intense compe-tition between Microsoft and Google regardingtheir respective Internet search engines thatare so fundamental to the success of theWorld Wide Web. Recently the competitionbetween these two companies has moved intothe area of Earth imaging with both compa-nies having identified such imagery, combinedwith the supply of the associated maps, loca-tion-based business data and travel informa-tion, as being a vital component of the ser-vices being offered by their respective searchengines. Besides these two heavyweight com-petitors, it is worth noting that Yahoo! mayalso join this competition, since it has recently

    introduced a beta version of its Yahoo! Mapssoftware, see up till now, Yahoo! has not utilizedimagery in this particular product. Still it wouldbe no surprise if it decided to do so.

    I (a) - TerraFly, Skyline & KeyholeThere have been quite a number of interactiveservices that, for some years, have offeredextensive ground coverage based on satelliteand aerial images in combination with thelocal business information associated witheach specific image. A prominent example isTerraFly, which is a service covering the U.S.A.offered by Florida International University (FIU)with support from IBM, NASA and USGS, see Skyline SoftwareSystems has offered a similar service withmaps located side-by-side with the correspond-

    ing satellite images, see Yet another similar service, entitled Earth-Viewer, was offered from 2001 onwards by theKeyhole Corporation, see last service allowed customers to startfrom a world globe and to zoom rapidly,smoothly and in a very dynamic way to thespecific area of interest, often at a very highresolution - down to street level within cities.This service was aimed originally at businessusers who paid a quite substantial subscrip-tion (annual fee) of several hundred dollars forthe service. Indeed the full "enterprise" ver-sion of the software for multiple users within alarge organization cost $20,000. However, in2003, Keyhole introduced a lightweight versionof the software with somewhat reduced capa-bilities - called Keyhole LT - which was aimedat the consumer market and which retailed atsome tens of dollars. Keyhole needed to populate the very large(multi-terabyte) image and map databaserequired to support all its various productsand services. To this end, it obtained aerialphotography from AirPhotoUSA; satelliteimagery from i-cubed and DigitalGlobe; andmap and address data from Geographic DataTechnology (GDT), now owned by Tele Atlas. Atthat time, the Keyhole service mainly coveredthe U.S.A. at high resolutions.

    II - GoogleIn October 2004, Google announced that ithad acquired the Keyhole Corporation. Thetwo companies are both based in MountainView, California, which meant that there was a minimum disruption to the staff. Since then,

    April/May 20066


    The news that the Microsoft Corporation is in the process of trying to acquire the Vexcel Corporation was first reported on 15th

    March 2006 by the Daily Camera, a local newspaper published in Vexcel's home town of Boulder, Colorado. Somewhat belatedly,

    this leaked news was confirmed by spokesmen for Microsoft and Vexcel a day or two later. All of which triggered an outpouring of

    comment on numerous Web sites from Microsoft "watchers" and "bloggers". It was only too apparent from the published comments

    that many of these "bloggers" simply have little or no idea as to what Vexcel does and why it should be attractive to Microsoft. So

    the publisher invited me to supply my own thoughts and opinions on the matter of this projected take-over of Vexcel. It is very

    much a personal viewpoint!

    A Commentary by Gordon Petrie

    The Vexcel UltraCam D large-format airborne digital camera showing the multiple lens cones that produce itspanchromatic and multi-spectral frame images. (Source: Vexcel).

    Prod_GEO_3_2006 gtb-5.0 26-04-2006 12:29 Pagina 6

  • matters have moved rapidly with the variousKeyhole products being renamed and integrated closely with Google's search engineand with Google Maps and Google Local. Fromthe users' standpoint, the most notable feature is that the map data can be superim-posed directly over the image data of the terrain. In June 2005, Google launched itsGoogle Earth product based on the Keyholetechnology. In particular, the lightweight version of the product was offered free for personal use through a simple download fromGoogle's Web site without any need for theuser to register. The previous enhanced, business and enterprise versions of the software - now called Google Earth Plus,Google Earth Pro and Google Earth Enterprise -still have to be paid for, though at a lowerlevel than before. However the availability ofthe free version of the Google Earth triggereda massive explosion of public and media inter-est and much favourable publicity. The Google Earth database has continued tobe developed at a rapid rate. From the specificpoint of view of Western Europe, many moreimage data suppliers have been signed upand coverage is now much more extensivethan before. However the rest of the worldoutside North America and Western Europe isstill very poorly served - at least in terms ofhigh-resolution imagery.

    II (a) - @Last SoftwareTwo days before the news broke aboutMicrosoft's proposed take-over of Vexcel,another much smaller company, @LastSoftware - like Vexcel, also based in Boulder,

    no longer has any stake in the TerraServerventure. Furthermore the main source of theimagery has also been changed. The baselineimagery is now the USGS aerial photographywith a 1m GSD that covers almost all of theUnited States. Internationally the baselineimagery became the 15m GSD Landsatimagery, mainly supplied by EarthSat (nowMDA Federal), and the 1km NASA imagery asprocessed by the Globe Explorer company. These systematic coverages are supplementedby (i) more scattered higher resolution aerialphotographic image coverage, mainly of theUnited States, supplied by AirPhotoUSA,Sanborn and other commercial aerial photog-raphy providers and (ii) by satellite coveragesupplied by Digital Globe. Topographic mapcoverage at scales ranging from 1:24,000 to1:250,000 is also available from TerraServer,together with aeronautical charts at still smaller scales, see

    III (b) - TerraServer-USAFrom 1998 till 2003, TerraServer was hosted byMicrosoft's MSN Network, after which, theagreement was terminated. Since then,Microsoft has been engaged in its own quiteseparate TerraServer-USA operation - see In fact, thisproject started up in 2001. This service pro-vides free access to a large part of the vaststore of geospatial data of the USGS, includingthe USGS Digital Orthophoto Quadrangles(DOQs) and its Digital Raster Graphics (DRGs).TerraServer-USA also hosts the NASA data setsused by NASA's World Wind service. In May 2005, the TerraServer-USA operationwas transferred from the Microsoft Research

    Colorado - was acquired byGoogle. @Last's main softwareproduct is SketchUp, whichallows the simple constructionand modelling of 3D objects,especially buildings, from scratch.It has gained a substantial cus-tomer base among architects,graphic artists and game develop-ers. Moreover two plug-in ver-sions of SketchUp had also beendeveloped (i) for use with ESRI'sArcGIS package, and (ii) to devel-op 3D content for Google Earth.One presumes that Google decid-ed to acquire @Last Software sothat this valuable tool would not

    fall into the hands of a competitor,

    III - MicrosoftThe Microsoft Corporation has been active inthe field of supplying spaceborne and airborneimagery for some considerable time - verymuch longer than Google!

    III (a) - TerraServerThis involvement began with its participationin the TerraServer project that started in1997/98. Initially this was a collaborationbetween Aerial Images, Compaq and Microsoft.The Aerial Images company, through an agree-ment with the Sovinformsputnik company,supplied Russian SPIN-2 high-resolution spaceimagery as the initial baseline imagery to cus-tomers using TerraServer. Compaq supplied itshigh-powered Alpha servers to provide theconsiderable computing resources that wererequired for this on-line service.While, for its part in the partner-ship, Microsoft supplied a scaled-up version of its Windows NTsoftware and its SQL relationaldatabase management system.Essentially, at that early stage,Microsoft viewed TerraServermainly as a research project andtest bed for the development ofadvanced database technology.

    Over the next few years, theTerraServer project graduallychanged, In particular, the ownership changed and Microsoft

    April/May 2006Latest News? Visit 7


    -O ver of Vexcel-O ver of Vexcel

    An annotated perspective view of part of Chicago showing the skyscraperbuildings in the downtown area of the city - as displayed on Google Earth.(Source: Google)

    A perspective view of an area in which the buildings, roads and car parkshave been constructed using the SketchUp software from @Last Software -an example from the SketchUp gallery. (Source: @Last Software/Google)

    Prod_GEO_3_2006 gtb-5.0 26-04-2006 12:29 Pagina 7

  • group to the company's MapPoint group. Thelatter group had for some time been selling itsMapPoint map products for travel location,navigation and planning. On 30th June 2005,Microsoft's MSN Search rolled