Home / VirtualEarth vs. Google Maps - not hitting the high note

Let’s not kid ourselves: any new online map web service will be evaluated based on how it compares to Google Maps, the most popular kid on that block.

If VirtualEarth came out before Google Maps it would have been a great improvement over clunky yahoo/aol/msn maps. But it didn’t so it’s just an also-ran, playing a catch-up game but not yet catching up.

Let’s start with the good things:

  • I like that the map takes the whole width of the browser.
  • I like that how they overlay lists of the results on top of the map (and not next to the map, which allows them to use the whole width of the browser for the map).
  • I like the scratchpad.

Now, to the ugly, or the gentle art of design.

Judging design is not easy, because there is an element of personal preferences, but the bottom line is: Google’s design is just better.

I did a comparative tour of San Francisco and Seattle and it all starts with how maps are rendered. Google uses brighter colors. At the same zoom level the streets seem to be thicker, the street names slightly more readable, the one-way street arrows more visible. Google’s zoom in/out control (black & white with subtle shadows) is simple yet looking good while Microsoft’s has gradients and feels heavier (and the orange arrow is plain ugly).

By default VirtualEarth has animated zoom in/out effect that slows down zoom operation and just looks bad and disorienting (especially the ‘zoom in’ part, since instead of just doing transition from current size to zoomed in, it looks like it zooms in more and then zooms back). This can be turned off in options, but shouldn’t be on by default. It’s an anti-thesis of what’s important in web design (usability: yes, “cool” animation effect: no) and looks like an attempt to cram a feature that Google doesn’t have.

It all adds up to a simple fact that Google Maps feel more enjoyable to use than Microsoft’s.

I much prefer Google’s minimalistic approach to design (there’s only one type of a link, and it looks like any other link on the internet i.e. underlined blue text; buttons look like buttons and there’s plenty of whitespace) than Microsoft’s heavy and confused approach (apprently msn designers think tha t gradients are cool, beveled text is cool, non-standard links are cool, having two kinds of links is cool).

Now, don’t take it as me completely dissing VirtualEarth. Technologically, it’s impressive. Zooming and panning is so fast that it feels like a desktop app. If it came earlier, it would deserve all the oohs and aahs. But we have Google Maps which pioneered the essential breakthrough in maps (giving a majority of the window to the map, fast zooming and panning, overlaying search results on the map) and got the design so right, that it’s hard to improve upon. I don’t see a single reason to switch to VirtualEarth.

I just read latest Joel’s Hitting the High Notes article which mostly re-iterates the “some programmers are 10x better than other programmers, hence it’s important to hire the best programmers you can find”. But there’s one more thing in that article that resonated with me in the context of VirtalEarth vs. Google maps smackdown: some programmers/designers can do stuff so good that other programmers/designers are not able to match, regardless of how long they try. On-line mapping landscape seems to support this theory. While Google’s design might only be better in few things, it is an inspired and polished design and those few changes make all the difference in the world.

Google Maps is the iPod of mapping.