Microsoft Map Search Adventure
By Hui Ma, China Internet Weekly
June 20, 2009 3:00 PM PT

The recommended route from Zhichun Road, where Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) is located, to the Temple of Heaven: Take Subway Line 10 from Zhichun Road Station, get off at Huixinxijie Nankou, which is six stops away and transfer to Subway Line 5; get off at the Temple of Heaven East Gate Station after 11 stops and then travel the rest of the way to the Temple by foot. Estimated travel time is 32 minutes for a distance of 18 kilometers. Car drivers may obtain real-time advice on traffic conditions, roads and speed limits, and alternative routes to circumvent congestion.

This is not the information you’d get by asking for directions from a random senior on a Beijing street. But wandering around in downtown Beijing, you may get this type of advice with a single inquiry at wap.bing.com using your mobile-based browser. In the case of computer browsing, you can search the Bing Ditu (cn.bing.com/ditu/) and have it send route suggestions to your mobile phone free of charge.

"When first released last year in China, Microsoft Live Ditu gave priority to public bus transfer suggestions although its master edition for the U.S. market started with driving routes,” explained an excited Dr. Zhenyu Qian, Group Program Manager at Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia. “Microsoft Search Technology Center (STCA) not only localizes products to meet the needs of Chinese users, but will also make great contributions to Microsoft map products for other parts of the world."

A Beijing native who was brought up in Zhongguancun (which literally means the Zhongguan Village), Qian had "toured around the world,” but each of his steps seem to take him closer to his final destination. Now a member of the Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia, Qian and his colleagues have been hammering out products and services that are closest to the lives of ordinary people but use technology that is way above the ordinary mind.

Turn the Corner to Search

Microsoft is more or less a rookie in search business, but its services have no shortage of eye catchers and innovations. Qian is a witness of every stage of the development and transformation in Microsoft’s search technology in China.

From Zhongguancun No. 2 Primary School to the No.81 Middle School, Qian is a typical Zhongguan Villager. Having earned degrees from the Department of Computer Science and Technology in Tsinghua University and the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he sought further education in Germany and later was a professor at a German university. Bringing moderate research experience to Silicon Valley, he joined a P2P software startup in 2000 that was acquired by Microsoft in 2002. Along with his partners, Qian then launched a wireless technology firm that was later transformed into a media company. It was all by chance that Qian eventually joined Microsoft. Having tried almost everything in IT, Qian found himself interested in the culture of large companies. Microsoft attracted him with its years of accumulation in software development as well as its capacity to make big things happen. "I take pride in my forward-looking personality that always sees hope in adversity,” said Qian, adding that this attitude is necessary for innovation at Microsoft.

Microsoft released its first local versions of general search and map search in 2007, which was followed by several major updates until the launch of Microsoft mobile search in December 2008. On May 29, 2009, Microsoft Live Ditu based on Virtual Earth technology was officially renamed "Bing Ditu." Creative and practical features, coupled with careful thoughtful designs, further improved user experience, and made it more fun to share map-related information.

Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia, inaugurated in October 2005, was the first one of its kind in Microsoft’s overseas operation. Tony Chor, Director of Program Management at Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia, has apparently learned a lot from his experience. "We’ve learned from our users in China how important it is to easily find and locate local information in an easy to understand way,” Chor said. “We’re excited to bring these important innovations in Ditu to help meet these needs for users in China. We hope users give Ditu a try and let us know what they think so we can make improve the service even more."

Next Stop: Bing

Microsoft always does a lot of detailed preparatory work before launching any new edition of its products. At the Sigma Building, special laboratories are established for user trial and improvement suggestions. "Bing Ditu" is far from being a new edition of a map.

With Microsoft's new map search, queries about bus lines can be as easy as checking the bus stop signs on site (routes, station names, directions, names of all stations en route, as well as schedules of the first and last buses are available). In addition to route suggestions, information services for car drivers also provides other guiding messages such as major interchanges, toll ways, landmarks (e.g., "turn left, and you will find on your left side the XXX Building"), and so on. "The success of a map search service depends on how fast and user-oriented you are," Qian said. In the case of route query, for instance, Bing Ditu allows its user to select any starting and finishing point on the map with right clicks rather than putting in specific names; and a few left clicks will tell you the distance. "This is very useful for Chinese users who, for example, are looking for housing," Qian said. Apart from bus transfer information and driving route suggestions, Bing Ditu can cooperate with MSN so that users and their pals can perform parallel search, browsing, annotation, and sharing on the same issue.

To date, Bing Ditu provides basic maps and local search services to 337 cities in China, 51 of them include bus routes. It also provides a powerful API platform on which developers can easily create all sorts of Virtual Earth-based map applications. Companies and individual website owners will be able to quickly embed Microsoft map in web pages they specify to launch their trademark map information services. Moreover, Microsoft and its partners already have a number of successful stories to tell.

The Microsoft Search Saga

Microsoft "Bing Map" is already a well-established on-line service made available to all users in America, which also includes a number of dazzling features, such as bird's eye views and 3D maps. This seemingly simple map, however, has to walk a lot of extra miles to really “understand” people's needs, and to offer educated suggestions. In bus transfer query, for example, a click on the map will only tell the computer the location the user wants to start from or arrive at. The system is expected to search the entire Internet for information relevant to that point. Based on the latitude and longitude coordinates of the location, the system fetches names of all adjacent streets and traffic nodes from its database. Finally, through an artificial intelligence-based heuristic algorithm, the system computes for public transportation routes between two selected points on the map.

"Microsoft is fully capable of bringing global collaboration to its extremes for product development. Local and global development are entirely intertwined, with each of its research facilities working independently to achieve common goals," said Qian, "Map search for Chinese users carries localized features originally designed for users in other parts of the world, and such localization itself turns out to be part of the pool of features for the global market. The final step of localization is very important, or even decisive. Localized and universal features are complementary to each other.”

"Microsoft Bing Search could be a true challenger to all its global competitors." As an “integral part” of this new service, Qian maintains every ounce of his confidence. The transformation from "Live Ditu" to "Bing Ditu" is by no mean nominal. Users’ perceived value of Microsoft map is being increased through each and every click. As for Microsoft, the journey of searching for its dreams has just begun.