Wednesday, 21 July, 2004

Microsoft MapPoint

I spent about 90 minutes on the phone this evening with a representative from Microsoft's MapPoint technology group.  The purpose was a technology overview for an article I'm writing to be published on DevSource.  On the surface, MapPoint doesn't look all that exciting.  It's just another MapQuest knock-off, right?  Wrong.  MapPoint is actually several different products, including MSN Maps, Streets and Trips, MapPoint 2004, MapPoint Web Service, and MapPoint Location Server.  They all provide some type of mapping service, but in very different ways.

MSN Maps provides maps and driving directions in much the same vein as MapQuest.  Streets and Trips is a desktop product that lets you plan trips, print maps, view points of interest, and all that other good stuff people expect from mapping software.  There's also a Pocket PC version called Pocket Streets.  MapPoint 2004 is business mapping software that lets you put maps into documents and include demographic information on the maps.  The CD product has an astounding amount of demographic information.  You can color-code a city based on demographics:  median income, number of children, etc.

The Web Service is what I find particularly exciting, though.  If your company needs mapping information or wants to provide mapping information to customers through your Web site, you can contract with Microsoft MapPoint to provide the data.  A simple example is providing your Web site visitors the ability to find the store nearest their location.  Given the user's ZIP code, you can query MapPoint for stores within a given radius and then show a map that pinpoints each store.  You have to put a few pieces together in order for it to work, but it's pretty simple.

It's worth checking out if you're interested in playing with map data.  Go to the Web Service page, download the SDK (requires the .NET Framework), and sign up for an evaluation account.  .NET isn't required to use MapPoint:  as an XML Web service, it's platform agnostic.  But the SDK samples and all the documentation are .NET centric, so be prepared to do some translation if you're doing PHP or something else non-.NETish.