Microsoft plans to unveil on Wednesday the latest test version of its Windows Live Local online mapping and local search service, which now tells users how traffic is flowing along specific routes and integrates with the company\u2019s Outlook application, Microsoft officials said.Windows Live Local lets users search for local businesses, obtain driving directions and locate places on a map. It will eventually replace the local search service Microsoft currently offers on its MSN.com portal and thus become Microsoft\u2019s competitor to similar services from Yahoo, Google and IAC\/InterActiveCorp\u2019s Ask.com.Search-engine operators are busy perfecting their online mapping and local search services because these are proving very attractive to users and advertisers. These services are like phone directories on steroids, allowing people to easily search and find local businesses. For merchants, these services become attractive advertising vehicles.In the newest Windows Live Local release, users will be able to see how heavy or light traffic is along specific U.S. roads, find out if and where there are accidents, and how serious they are. For this new feature, Microsoft is partnering with Traffic.com.Also new is a functionality Microsoft calls "collections," which lets users save their favorite places and locations to an online notebook, upload photos and add notes. Users will also be able to share with others these scratchpads\u2019 content via e-mail or the MSN Spaces blogging service, creating a sort of social network based on Windows Live Local.This new version also features integration with the Windows Live Messenger instant messaging service, so that users can initiate an instant-messaging session from within Windows Live Local while seeing and interacting with the same map.In addition, Microsoft is releasing a new plug-in for Windows Live Local that extends the service\u2019s mapping functions to the company\u2019s Outlook e-mail, calendaring and contacts application. With the plug-in, Outlook XP and Outlook 2003 users will be able to find and print Windows Live Local maps from within Outlook. The plug-in will be available as a free download.Also seeing the light of day Wednesday is version 3 of the Virtual Earth Map Control, an application program interface that lets developers build applications that run on top of Windows Live Local and tap into its mapping and local search capabilities. This new version adds support for looking up addresses and driving directions, among other things.Also on Wednesday, Microsoft is unveiling Windows Live Local versions for the United Kingdom\u00a0and Canada, featuring local business search, aerial mapping images and driving directions, but not all of the features are available for the United States, such as the very detailed bird\u2019s-eye images of certain areas and the real-time traffic data.Bird\u2019s-eye images will begin to appear for London in the coming weeks and in Canadian cities in the coming months, as well as expand in the United States, since they are available for only some parts of the country.-Juan Carlos Perez, IDG News ServiceThis article is posted on our Microsoft Informer page.\u00a0For more news on the Redmond, Wash.-based powerhouse, keep checking in.Check out our CIO News Alerts and Tech Informer pages for more updated news coverage.