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Here at O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 conference in San Jose, an annual event for 800+ mashup developers, there’s no perspective yet on the importance of maps to the local ecosphere. But a picture is developing of a “3D Data arms race,” in which Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others are spending fortunes vying to have developers use their platforms for cityscapes, which could be as important as a Windows operating system has been for PCs.

“We don’t just want 1,000 people who use” Google’s API for maps, said Google map head Michael Jones. “We want 100,000. We want to be the glue that makes it work. Geo is something that is integral to everything moving forward.”

Jones noted that Google already has 2 million activations of Google Earth, which it hopes to be “the most inclusive map on Earth. Now the company is adding to its Geo product line by introducing Google Street View, which it sees as a major help navigating dense urban areas. “StreetView will let people see information that is not published anywhere” (such as parking lot availability and pricing). It also serves as an excellent insertion point for local ads,” said Jones. “Location targeted ads are a very large opportunity.”

Not to be outdone, Microsoft mapping head Erik Jorgensen asserted that Microsoft has taken a significant lead in 3D imaging of cities, with “one million buildings done,” including 50,000 in New York City alone. “It takes three weeks to build a city,” he said.

Jorgensen’s view is that the company’s Virtual Earth platform is being developed for “access, realism and scale,” and that 3D itself is perhaps a couple of years away from becoming the de facto standard. There will be a “tipping point” when Virtual Earth won’t just be a single destination site, but could be embedded in any Web site, he said.

While Microsoft and Google have their aspiration in mapping, of course, they do not exactly own the space. Nor do they need to. But Tele- Atlas has 100 3D cities built up and will have 500 cities next year. Ray Gun has 70 3 D cities, each capable of supporting GPS and cellphone tracking.

Futurist Mike Liebhold, moderating a panel, forecast where it is all going. “There is a fundamental difference in cartography, where we are thinking about volumes,” he said. It has gone beyond points, vectors and polygons to include tiles. “We’re going from terrain to buildings. We’re rendering smaller objects of buildings. We’re moving beyond (mapping) storefronts to providing inside GIS.” In fact, the desire to map out the insides of buildings would have major implications for retail. It was a major point of discussion at the conference.

While everyone agrees that maps are important no-matter-what, there were some calls for perspective outside of the Google-Microsoft aura. “You guys are all about technology push. But you need to effectively balance market pull,” noted MapQuest GM James Greiner. co-founder Steven Johnson reminded the audience that “It is not always about the map. We don’t need maps all the time to show us what’s going on.” For, a placeblogging site, he said, “we decided to make the map as small as possible” in order to focus on the thoughts of the community. Users can blow up the map, zoom in etc., when they want to.

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