Amazon Supplements Maps with Street-Level Photos

The A9 beta site now features millions of photographs from 24 cities, giving it a feature edge over competitors Google and Yahoo.

Amazon is bringing together interactive maps and street-level photography as part of its A9 search services.

Dubbed Maps, the beta site lets users view addresses and buildings in a block view, rather than from overhead, like services offered by rivals MSN and Yahoo. It was developed for the Yellow Pages service announced by Amazon in January, with maps supplied by Mapquest.

There are 24 cities so far with Block View, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and even Fargo, N.D. The technology offers photos of both sides of streets, which have been taken by vehicles fitted with digital cameras and GPS systems. Currently, 35 million pictures have been taken.

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In unveiling the map service, A9 chief executive Udi Manber noted that the intention was to make maps more like reality, and less abstract—meaning that rather than create a route with marked streets, a user can view photos of the drive, which will facilitate more accurate results.

The race to fashion the best maps has become a very heated and competitive part of search services, said Jupiter Research analyst Greg Stein. Google has released a "hybrid" site that superimposes aerial photography onto road maps, and last month MSN unveiled Virtual Earth beta, which draws on satellite photos for its maps.

Whether Amazon will be able to capture a significant part of the map market in comparison to Yahoo or Google remains to be seen. Some analysts are not confident that A9 can triumph over competitors.

"MSN is leading the pack," said Yankee Group analyst Patrick Mahoney. "But basically, its a very fast market, so whenever one of them comes out with an innovative feature, the others have it within a few months."

As a result, A9 Maps may have to do more work to keep up with its neighbors, Mahoney noted. "Its important that they all have the same product offering, because theyre all going after the same customer base," he said.

While Amazon is trailing MSN in Mahoneys estimation, Stein said he sees the introduction of its street-level map service setting A9 apart. "If it was a small company, Id say that wouldnt have a shot of capturing attention," he said. "But since its backed by Amazon, it has a chance in the mapping space."

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