Microsoft has just released a new Silverlight version of Bing Maps that is full of new features and upgrades. Although it's hard to say whether this release of Bing Maps has "stolen the cool crown" from Google, the new features do provide some additional value for users. The "beta" release is not yet available by default, though you can preview the latest version at: http://www.bing.com/maps/explore.
Aside from several enhancements to the UI, which is much richer based on the capabilities of Silverlight, perhaps one of the most valuable additions is the new "Streetside" feature, which provides street level panoramic immersion and navigation (similar to Google's StreetView). Streetside is currently available in 56 metro areas, although we can expect additional coverage in the future.
The latest version also includes what Microsoft describes as "Enhanced Bird's Eye" imagery, which cleverly renders some buildings in urban areas with a 3D aspect ratio. In areas where 3D models and oblique aerial photographs are not available, aerial images are reprojected to provide an oblique perspective (below).
Photosynth is also natively integrated with Bing Maps, and so those photosynth images that have been geotagged are available for display on the maps as well.
In addition to these new features, Microsoft has released a new application gallery that includes several apps that can be toggled on to display additional data and features. These are not mashups per se, and the gallery currently is limited to apps developed by Microsoft (no word yet on whether independently developed apps will be integrated as well).
One of the new apps is the Twitter app, which utilizes the recently released Twitter geolocation API to display tweets on a map.
There are several other minor upgrades and features available, including a new Defined Regions Query that automatically displays named neighborhoods. Chris Pendleton has a lengthy recap on the Bing Maps Blog.
Critics may point out that the new UI relies on Silverlight, which is not necessarily ubiquitous, so that may present a barrier for adoption. Regardless of whether you're a fan of Bing Maps, Google Maps, or any other web mapping platform, it's good to see that Microsoft is continuing to improve its platform. In the end, the more diverse the offerings out there, the more that consumers (and developers) win. While it's not certain if or when much of the new functionality and features will be programmatically accessible, we're hoping that the Bing Maps API will be expanded to include some, if not all, of them in the near future.