Microsoft's Week: Bing v2.1 and Death to the Black Screen of Death

Microsoft's week involved the release of several new features for Bing, its search engine, including new-and-improved Bing Map applications. Bing users can now view local terrain at eye level in 100 cities, in a feature seemingly designed to compete with Google's Street View. This week, Microsoft also wrestled with the erroneous perception that two of its Patch Tuesday security updates were responsible for a small number of PC users experiencing what quickly became known as the Black Screen of Death.

Microsoft's week involved two words that start with "'B": Bing, its search engine, which received multiple improvements and added features, and Black, as in "Black Screen of Death."

Around the end of November, reports began circulating online that some Windows users were experiencing what quickly became known as the Black Screen of Death. As an error screen, the Black Screen's blankness lacked the panache of the classic Mac "Bomb" icon, but nonetheless it sparked a burst of panic in many Windows users and IT administrators, who initially feared that the issue was widespread, and related to security patches issued by Microsoft.

However, security vendor Prevx-which had previously reported that two Microsoft patches, KB915597 and KB976098, were at least partially to blame for the situation-turned around and said that the issue did not appear to be connected to Redmond's security patches.

"In parsing the Shell value in the registry, Windows requires a null terminated 'REZ_SZ' string," Prevx reported on its official blog. "If malware or indeed any other program modifies the shell entry to not include null terminating characters, the shell will no longer load properly, resulting in the infamous Black Screen."

Microsoft also asserted its security patches weren't at the root of the issue.

"We've conducted a comprehensive review of the November Security Updates, the Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool, and the non-security updates we released through Windows Update in November," Christopher Budd, communications lead for the Microsoft Security Response Center, wrote in a Dec. 1 posting on the official Microsoft Security Response Center blog. "That investigation has shown that none of these updates make any changes to the permissions in the registry. Thus, we don't believe the updates are related to the 'black screen' behavior described in these reports."

Budd also asserted that the Black Screen of Death was not "a broad customer issue."

That other "B," Bing, came into play on Dec. 2, when Microsoft announced that it was releasing new features for its search engine that included the beta version of the new-and-improved Bing Maps. In addition to Streetside, which provides Bing Maps users with an eye-level view of local terrain (in about 100 cities so far) and seems designed as a direct competitor to Google's Street View, the updated Bing Maps include "map apps" such as Twitter Maps, which displays tweets originated from particular geographic locations.

Other Map Apps give users access to elements such as current traffic, live traffic video feeds from around the United States, and local blogs tied into particular coordinates. Overall, Microsoft seems intent on livening up online cartography, a relatively static affair, with features that leverage real-time information-the better, Microsoft hopes, to counteract Google's traditional dominance of the online search space.

In addition to Bing Maps, the upgraded Bing-which could be unofficially termed Version 2.1, if November's wide-ranging update was "Bing v2.0"-included a new Bing Bar for Internet Explorer and Firefox, which places much of Bing's functionality into a series of one-click icons beneath the search bar. On top of that, a new Bing mobile application lets BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Sidekick users search via spoken terms.

Bing currently occupies roughly 9.6 percent of the U.S. search engine market, according to Experian Hitwise, while Google occupies 70.6 percent.

And then, from approximately 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Dec. 3, the Bing site crashed.

"The cause of the outage was a configuration change during some internal testing that had unfortunate and unintended consequences," Satya Nadella, senior vice president of Microsoft's Online Services Division, wrote in a Dec. 3 posting on the official Bing blog. "As soon as the issue was detected, the change was rolled back, which caused the site to return to normal behavior."

Although Twitter users commented about the outage, there didn't seem to be the same tidal wave of complaint that nominally accompanies unexpected Google Apps downtime-meaning either that the online community has become more used to outages among cloud-based applications, or else that Bing, with its market share, is still popularly perceived as a minor alternative to Google. With its new Bing applications, though, Microsoft is hoping to change that perception.