Microsoft today launched a beta version of Windows Live Local, its local search, online mapping and satellite photo service, in the UK.

It's branded as Windows Live Local, part of Microsoft's line of hosted and free services. Microsoft's efforts put it head to head with successful mapping and satellite imagery services from competitors such as Google and Yahoo.

The interface for Windows Live Local has been customised for the UK, and offers a search feature for UK businesses, said Peter Williams, marketing lead for Virtual Earth and MapPoint services. Microsoft has also integrated the service with Windows Live Messenger, allowing users to share maps and locations from within chat sessions.

Windows Live Local combines Microsoft's Virtual Earth satellite imagery service with data from MSN Maps and Directions. The service started in the US around July 2005, he said.

"We are at the beginning of our expansion, with the UK being the first step," Williams said.

Microsoft is eventually planning to sell APIs (application programming interfaces) for the service to businesses such as estate agents, which could incorporate the mapping features into their websites, Williams said. The Windows Live Local site could also accommodate adverts, he said.

Satellite imagery of the UK, which could be seen within the US version of Windows Live Local for the London area, has been expanded for most of the UK, Williams said. The satellite images can be overlaid on the service's maps, he said.

Microsoft has partnered locally for images for a feature called 'bird's eye view', offering closer, 45-degree images. The bird's eye view images come from photographs taken from aircraft at around 3,000 feet, Williams said.

Microsoft is aiming for 80 percent of the UK's urban areas with the oblique imagery. About 200 square miles of London will be added in the coming weeks, about 15 percent of the city, he said.

Click here for the best Microsoft voucher codes.