When Microsoft quit its Sidewalk city guide in 2001, it promised to keep its foot in the door of local services. At that time, it was probably thinking “small business,” since it was bent on remaking the small business marketplace around the Great Plains software company that it had recently purchased. But small business services have never really pushed local into new areas. Arguably, software never has. In fact, Microsoft’s role in local is only now getting established, due to the newly accorded prominence of two areas that Microsoft also considers part of its core competency: maps and imaging.
Speaking at Kelsey’s ILM conference in early December, Microsoft Local Group head Erik Jorgensen presented a masterful picture of local’s image-driven future. “People want true visualization, showing them ‘what is there,’ he said. “Fundamentally, people are visual. And people want location integrated into relevant services.”
Jorgensen note that Microsoft isn’t necessarily going to emerge as local’s new nucleus. “Local,” he said, “is the most important vertical in search overall. But you can’t win alone in local.” He basically acknowledged the fact that local is permanently fragmented, with several well entrenched players, including Yahoo, Google, AOL/MapQuest and IAC. But an equally important role, he suggested, will be played by non-commercial players who might use Microsoft’s API to do mashups and spread the word – just as tens of thousands of sites do with Google Maps today.
In any case, local “is going to change in two years,” said Jorgensen. By then, we’ll have begun to sort out the role of community social nets; imagery; local services; and the future of map platforms. In five years, he said, “the majority of access will be from mobile devices.”
Going out on a limb a little, Jorgensen also suggested that local’s future will also turn on establishing electronic connections for “traditional relationships.” Currently, he noted that most Internet content and groupware hinges on “anonymous user generated content.” “Trust sources matter. You don’t want to rely on new ones,” he said. In this regard, Microsoft would seek to leverage the “12 billion relationships” it has captured via Windows, HotMail, MSN, Office etc. Jorgensen, of course, hopes this will happen via Microsoft’s new “Windows Live Local” service.
Whatever occurs, Jorgensen said that Microsoft’s commitment is to provide a comprehensive search service built around local features. “Loyalty comes from finding the hard to get info,” he said. Microsoft’s “local content” will be the most comprehensive and up to date.” Its “local city” will connect people and businesses. Just as critically, its services will be “immersive,” as people find, discover and explore using Virtual Earth. “It is a pristine eco-system.”