Bing Versus Google, Windows Phone 7 Dominated Microsoft's Week

Microsoft's week consisted of several conversations with executives about the evolution of Bing, its search engine, and the inevitable comparisons with current U.S. search-market dominator Google. Those executives demonstrated a mobile version of Bing for Windows Phone 7 Series, the new smartphone operating system that Microsoft also showed off at this week's CTIA Wireless 2010 conference in Las Vegas. Although Bing and Windows Phone 7 Series are very consumer-oriented, Microsoft also made enterprise-centric news with the announcement of its upcoming unified communications platform, code-named Communications Server "14."

Back when Microsoft launched Bing in June 2009, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz predicted that interest in the search engine would be "temporary." Ten months later, Bing has managed to carve out an 11.5 percent share of the U.S. search engine market, lagging far behind Google's 65 percent but with a substantial enough showing for Microsoft executives to insist they've reversed the company's downward slide in search.

During this week's Search Engine Strategies show in New York City, Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of the Online Audience Group for Microsoft Bing, claimed that Microsoft's previous crash-and-burns in search had to do with its failure to retrieve relevant results from the "long tail" of less-common queries.

"We missed the boat early on that the focus was about the long tail," Mehditold the audience during the show March 25. "We actually focused a lot on the head of the queries. ... It turned out the long tail was much more important."

The explosive growth in URLs being added to the World Wide Web, Mehdi continued, forces Microsoft to wrestle with canvassing all that new online real estate. Partnerships with Foursquare, Twitter and Wolfram Alpha are apparently meant to buttress that task.

"On any given month, one-third of queries that show up on Bing, it's the first time we've ever seen that query," Mehdi said. "The challenge of being able to be up to speed, to understand that new flow of data and to be able to index the right thing so you can respond in subsecond time is a very, very hard problem."

Another Microsoft executive, Bing director Stefan Weitz, claimed in an interview with eWEEK that Microsoft is copacetic with ceding ground to Google on traditional keyword queries, as long as it can continue to draw revenue from targeted verticals such as Travel-centric search.

"People are creatures of habit, and they're fairly happy with Google's keyword search today and they think it works well and there's no reason for them to look around," Weitz said. "I think what we're doing with search and as we look at how people are using the Web itself and how the Web is changing, we think we can expand that which people do with these engines."

In essence, Weitz added, "We can grow the overall pie, the overall number of searches that are happening across the Web." Bing's features are designed to cement another layer onto traditional search: "We are moving beyond links and multimedia on a page to services that provide data that we will never ingest. But we know it exists, and we can pull it in real time to augment that answer."

During the Search Engine Strategies show, Mehdi also demonstrated a version of Bing for the upcoming Windows Phone 7 Series, which leverages the user's location to return local results in response to generalized queries; for example, type in the word "sushi," and the mobile Bing will offer sushi restaurants within a nearby radius. Mehdi suggested that Bing Maps functionality will eventually expand to offer users data such as bus schedules or whether there's a line at a local coffee shop.

Microsoft demonstrated handsets running Windows Phone 7 Series at this week's CTIA Wireless 2010 conference in Las Vegas. The new operating system, which features a slick consumer interface reminiscent of the Zune HD, Microsoft's well-reviewed but little-used portable media player, takes a different approach by integrating Web and mobile-application content into category-specific "Hubs" such as "Games" and "People."

Microsoft's new smartphone operating system is also an attempt at a fresh start after several quarters of U.S. market share declines. Its previous offering, Windows Mobile 6.5, was intended as a placeholder that would slow customer erosion until Windows Phone 7 Series could be released at an as-yet-unannounced point near the end of 2010; however, recent surveys by analyst firms indicate that Microsoft's share in the segment continues to decline in the face of fierce competition from Apple's iPhone, Research In Motion's BlackBerry line and a seemingly ever-growing collection of Google Android devices.

While Microsoft's Bing and Windows Phone 7 Series are primarily consumer-oriented, Microsoft also had announcements this week that pertained to the enterprise, particularly the announcement of the next version of its unified communications software, code-named Communications Server "14." Slated for availability in the second half of 2010, the platform will introduce a Communicator client intended to interoperate with Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint Server and Microsoft Exchange, while leveraging communications and collaboration tools such as instant messaging into the enterprise.

"Communications centered solely around the desk phone and built on hardware-based systems are quickly becoming a relic of the past," Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, wrote in a March 24 posting on the official Microsoft blog. "Even in this nomadic world a mobile phone is not sufficient-neither is it rich enough for collaborative work, nor are companies willing to reimburse upwards of $600 a year per employee for their mobile bill."

The area of unified communications has become increasingly competitive for IT companies, with heavyweights such as IBM determined to continually update their product lines. A February 2009 report by analyst company Forrester suggested that the overall unified communications market could be worth as much as $14.5 billion by 2015.

Even as Microsoft seems determined to grow or maintain its market share in areas such as search and mobility, though the company has seen market share for Internet Explorer decline in certain major European markets following the release, earlier in March, of its "Web browser choice screen." Designed to give Windows users in the European Union a selection of browsers other than Internet Explorer, and designed with an eye toward alleviating monopoly concerns from the regulatory European Commission about the bundling of IE with versions of Windows, the ballot screen gives users a choice of 12 different browsers prominent and small.

In France, Italy and the United Kingdom, IE's market share declined in the period between Feb. 9 and March 10, while shares for other browsers such as Opera rose; countries like Germany, however, posted gains for IE that seemed to buck that trend.

Although the European Commission seemed satiated by the ballot screen, smaller browsers have lodged complaints about the feature not introducing sufficient randomization into the actual browser lineup. In a March 2 conversation with eWEEK, Shawn Hardin, CEO of smaller browser Flock, said: "We can't compete with the sort of money that the top guys have, so this choice screen is enormously important. And it's just enormously disappointing that it happened this way."