If Microsoft Bing is Muhammad Ali, this is its best punch

An extensive look at Microsoft Bing’s attempt to challenge Google, published by the New York Times today, will get lots of attention for the irresistible opening anecdote about Bing general manager Mike Nichols drawing inspiration from the famous picture of one-time underdog Muhammad Ali standing triumphant over Sonny Liston.

But the real insight from the piece comes from a passage on the third page that explains, more clearly than I’ve seen it explained before, what Microsoft is actually attempting to do in search.

The passage starts with the description of a Microsoft Bing prototype called “DeskBar” — but DeskBar itself isn’t as important as the broader strategy it represents.

It is downloadable software for personal computers, and perhaps for smartphones and tablets. The DeskBar, in the early June prototype, sorts information by categories like people, documents and Web sites. It presents information in those categories in large on-screen icons, or tiles, and sorts data by what is most “recent, relevant and frequently used,” as one designer says.

The people feature, for example, sorts through communications including e-mail, Facebook and Twitter messages. The idea is to filter messages according to computed criteria — like those from your work colleagues, or from people you communicate with most often.

DeskBar is one of several experimental projects in the larger Bing strategy, Mr. MacDonald explains later. “You take a product category, you expand it and you own that expanded category,” he says. “We have a recipe.”

Translation: Microsoft is trying to make Bing part of the larger digital experience, not just the search experience. And that’s where it hopes to ultimately win.

For Microsoft to stand a chance, search has to become a much more pervasive, natural and intuitive part of everyday life. Typing words into a box needs to become the equivalent of turning on a black-and-white TV and fiddling with the knobs. Search needs to be something bigger and richer than that. Search might not even be the right word.

An early example of this approach is Microsoft’s plan to offer Bing-powered voice search as part of its Xbox Live system, allowing people to access content on their consoles using voice commands from the couch. Integration of Bing into Windows Phone is another.

The ’tiles’ in the NYT’s explanation of the DeskBar prototype clearly mesh with Microsoft’s Windows 8 plans (although antitrust precedents mean the company won’t be able to fall back on its old habit of bundling its underdog product with Windows, a la Internet Explorer vs. Netscape).

Bottom line, this is more evidence that Microsoft won’t be throwing in the towel on Bing — no matter how many billions it loses on the fight.

  • Guest

    Congratulations and thank you to Microsoft for continuing to innovate with Bing! Microsoft successfully made the transition from command-line interfaces like MS-DOS to graphical interfaces like Microsoft Windows a generation ago. It’s high time for web search to similarly leave the command line and join the 21st century.

    Microsoft’s competitors, such as Google, have abandoned search in favour of novelty distractions like social networking and video sharing, neither of which have ever produced long-term profit for any such site operator.

    Thank you to Microsoft for focusing on improving my Internet experience!

    • Deane T Rimerman

      Hi “guest,”

      Is this like a paid add for Microsoft disguised as a comment? Or maybe comment spam? Regardless, it’s a significant diversion from reality…

      I mean is IE everyone’s favorite browser? Is PocketPC everyone’s favorite phone? Is Microsoft Office everyone’s favorite document formatting and translation/administration tool? Is Hotmail and MSN everyone’s favorite email solution? Is Bing everyone’s favorite search engine? Is Microsoft the best place to invest your online advertizing dollars?

      • Guest

        IE has the largest market share of any web browser. Regardless of the evangelism of other web browsers’ users, it remains the world’s dominant browser.

        PocketPC is not a phone.

        Microsoft Office has the largest market share of any productivity suite. AppleWorks, which was renamed “iWork” a few years ago, is but a flyspeck in second place.

        Hotmail is one of the world’s top e-mail services. MSN, likewise, is one of the most-viewed web sites in the world. (Of course, it helps that Internet Explorer, the most-used browser, defaults to MSN as its home page.)

        As for Bing and Microsoft, well, you’ll just have to read the article.

        I am not affiliated with Microsoft nor am I paid to post.

      • john

        One wonders if you live in this reality…

      • Anonymous

        Hotmail has more people on it than Gmail. And yes, IE still has the largest market share.

    • Victor

      Keep it up! We all need a Monday morning chuckle. Someone ought to start a tech comedy routine.

      • Deane T Rimerman

        I know right… I’m amazed that geekwire is ruled by pro-microsoft commenters… I feel like it’s ten years ago and we don’t have social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+…  I’m a loyal MSers and I’m holding out for Microsoft’s social networking because everyone knows Balmer knows how to sweat success!

        It just pours out of him… Everything he looks at turns into an expensive software upgrade regardless of if the upgrade is needed or not… It’s like when I come to GeekWire I can forget about everything except Micorsoft because after all the is only one major company in the tech industry… (that wasn’t invited to dinner with Obama in Silicon Valley last winter) ;-)

        • Mark

          HP also wasn’t invited to Obama’s dinner. And it was after all a California/Silicon Valley affair. No reason for MS to be there.

          Your assertion that Geekwire is ruled by pro-MS commenters is provably false. And if you’re surprised that the MS section of Geekwire attracts some pro-MS commenters, then you have to be fairly naive. Just like I’m not surprised it attracts trolls like you and Victor.

          • Deane T Rimerman

            Wow… I’ve reached Troll status on Geek Wire! Awesome! And no I wasn’t serious about pro-MS commenters ruling anything…

          • Guest

            Deane, it’s important to consider all viewpoints when evaluating an issue. Ideologues, whether they be irrationally pro- or anti-Microsoft, are quickly marginalised.

          • BillReliable

            And not just there, eh?

          • Victor

            You are giving me too much credit. To troll actually means I care. I really couldn’t care less about Microsoft. I won’t hire ex-Microsoft guys; I don’t use Microsoft products as a consumer, this despite the fact my business as a software developer on Windows.

            The thing is, Microsoft is slowing becoming less and less relevant and interesting by the day, even people in third world countries are caring less and less. It used to be that pirates in places like China copy Microsoft stuff, do you hear many of those stories anymore? Probably not. They are too busy copying Apple, Facebook or Google. The reasons are obvious. 

            I pity Microsoft more than anything. But this is part of basic human nature, we get big, fat and lazy as we get older. Someday, the “cool” kids like Google and Facebook will follow the same footsteps. 

  • Deane T Rimerman

    Frazier is more like Microsoft and Ali is way more like Google… Frazier had a bad eye/poor vision that he kept a secret and he did beat Ali, but ultimately Ali beat him in one of the greatest contests ever. Just like Microsoft who ultimately loses to Google in so many different ways!

  • Bob

    Nobody who has followed the company for very long will be surprised at management’s willingness to lose billions after the fact because they failed to do enough analysis/differentiation up front. It’s a pattern that has now become SOP, unfortunately.

    • Deane T Rimerman

      Yes Bob!
      Thanks…
      Was beginning to wonder if anyone else was out there!

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