a9.gifWho even cared about Internet maps two years ago? They were handy, sure, utilitarian. But nothing to write home about. Google Maps changed all that, and now it seems everyone has to have a gee-whiz mapping service.

Amazon is the latest Internet giant out of the chute with something. Its A9.com Internet search subsidiary, based in Palo Alto on Lytton, launched maps.A9.com tonight. Its got all the basics, including some spiffy AJAX-y type technology that allows you to drag the controls around the map and zoom in by dragging a square on the page. But what sets it apart, for now, is the way they’ve merged it with A9’s “Block View” technology. Block View is the feature, released to great fan-fare in January, that lets you take a virtual tour of a neighborhood by viewing still images of storefronts or other locations.

By merging the technology with maps, users can click on a spot on a map and get an instant visual peek at the location in the sidebar. Where A9 does not have any Block View images to show, it will show images from the general area.

There are other features, too, such as click and click driving directions. Click a start point and end point and the maps will calculate a route for you (though, honestly, we don’t exactly remember how to do this). Users can also click a box to see which streets A9 has and has not filmed for block view. Also, there’s reverse geocoding that allows you to choose a spot on the map and click on a button to identify its exact street address.

It’s also worth noting what A9 maps doesn’t have. There are no satellite/aerial images, for example, which Google popularized and which MSN began offering recently. A9 vice president Barnaby Dorfman explains why.

“It’s interesting, it’s different from what we do,” Dorfman said of the satellite maps features, such as the one found at Google Maps. “We’ve enjoyed looking around and looking up where we live and seeing our roofs and things. But the focus here has been on what our users said they’ve been interested in…How can we show people a storefront, the signage, the parking around it, sort of those intangibles of what the neighborhood looks like. And we felt the best way to do that was to show kinda what you’d see when you went there.”

The site isn’t integrated with Amazon/A9’s yellow pages offering, something A9 will rectify over time, Dorfman said. A9 is still using its old mapping technology there. Also, there’s no way to bookmark a map or email it to a friend. Dorfman stressed that the service is still beta and that A9 will be listening closely to users.

“This is a beta,” Dorfman said. “We wanted to get out the major functionality.”

There’s no API, so no mash-up possibilities yet. Dorfman wouldn’t speak to the maps API specifically. But of Amazon in general, he said, “being open in one of our values…We’re very much interested in opening up our APIs to the creativity of developers and hobbyists and whatever. Generally before you open something like that up, it’s good to harden it and get it right with users.”

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