Microsoft is targeting one of Google's most popular services, Google Maps, wit its own online mapping service, released in beta yesterday.

The new Bing Maps beta uses Microsoft's Silverlight multimedia technology to provide a smoother way to zoom in and out of cityscapes that appear as 3D-like images. The beta service also includes Microsoft's answer to Google Street View, which it calls Streetside.

Bing Maps is also getting an Application Gallery for layering data on top of maps. One of the first is a Twitter application that uses the geolocation data recently added to Twitter, so that tweets can be displayed over a map in the locations they were sent from. That might help people get real-time updates on a local news event, for instance.

Another application, Local Lens, indexes local blogs using clues from what is written in the posts, and tries to layer them over the map in the appropriate location as well. Most of the applications today are from Microsoft, but it wants third-party developers to create more.

They are a few of the enhancements to Bing that Microsoft revealed to reporters. Others included updates to its core search service, such as "task pages" that list information designed to help people complete what they set out to do with their Bing search.

The updates continue Microsoft's efforts to attract more users to Bing, which it launched in June and has been marketing heavily ever since. Microsoft has increased its share of the search market from 8 percent to 9.9 percent since Bing's launch, according to figures from ComScore.

The results are encouraging for Microsoft but it still has a lot of work to do, said Satya Nadella, the senior vice president for Microsoft's online services division. Google retains a commanding lead, with 65 percent of the search market, while Yahoo's share has declined slightly to 18 percent.

"There's no confusion where we still stand," Nadella said. "We have a long road ahead."

The Bing Maps beta requires users to download Microsoft's free Silverlight plug-in. The existing version, which uses AJAX, is still available, but Microsoft will focus its efforts on the Silverlight version moving forward, Nadella said.

Microsoft is betting that people want help completing tasks, like buying a concert ticket or checking the status of a flight, rather than just being presented with links to information, he said. It's a direction Google and Yahoo have been taking as well.

People are using search engines for increasingly complex tasks, Nadella said. Search queries nowadays tend to involve three words rather than two, and more than half of search sessions last longer than 30 minutes, he said.

"That's the most interesting insight we've been digging into over the last couple of years, and it led to the feature innovations in Bing," he said.

Task pages, and a related feature called entity cards, are examples of this. They have been part of Bing for a little while already, but are being expanded.

Entity cards exist for places, people and things. When a user searches for Miami, for example, the entity card at the top of the results page groups together information such as a slide show of the city, a weather report and a link to the city's official website. Below that are links to the task pages, which show information about local events and neighbourhoods. 

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