It seems you can’t go anywhere these days without tripping over a new mash-up involving Google Maps and some other type of useful info, like apartment listings or traffic conditions. Tonight, Microsoft comes along to remind people that there’s another player in the maps realm. The product is Microsoft Virtual Earth, and it combines local searching with maps and satellite photography.

“We think of this as a new part of our broader MSN search strategy, which is focused on local search,” Tom Bailey, a marketing director for Microsoft, told us last week.

The users interface of VE will feel familiar to Google Maps users, with easy back-and-forth panning and zooming on both the graphical and satellite maps. But Microsoft has added some features that differentiate it.

One difference is that satellite maps are overlaid with street and city names, highways and landmarks such as airports and green-shaded parklands. Google offers this hybrid view in their Google Earth software, but not the web-based maps service. [Correction: Google just added this feature.] Other features include:

– Multiple searches: Users can keep multiple searches on the page at the same time, helping plan multiple activities. “In future releases, we hope to have more features that treat this like an itinerary,” Bailey said.

– Scratch pad: Any location can be added to a little scratchpad box for saving. Then, you can email your scratchpad contents to someone or blog them to an MSN Spaces blog.

– Permalinks: A way to save a search and location.

An intriguing feature is called “Locate Me.” Its intent is to help people locate themselves and nearby services on a map when they’ve rolled into a new town or area, such as on a business trip. “You show up in Atlanta and you want to know what’s going on and where things are,” Bailey said. It requires free downloadable software that hunts for wifi signals and tries to triangulate your position. Microsoft does this by tapping into a database of wifi hotspots with addresses.

As both Yahoo and Google have done, Microsoft is opening its maps platform to third-party developers. “They’ll be able to do many of the things you’ve seen done with other maps providers,” Bailey said.

This is a beta release, and Bailey said other features are coming. One that may excite people is the ability to show cities and landmarks from a 45-degree angle view, suing technology from Pictometry International. Microsoft will also be extending its coverage to other parts of the world. This first release is U.S. only.

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