Published By: BusinessWeek
Written by: Jon Fine
Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer used News Corp.'s (NWS) All Things Digital conference as a backdrop to introduce the public to his company's new search engine, Bing.
Demonstrated by Microsoft Senior Vice-President Yusuf Mehdi, Bing was unveiled with the inevitable gag video—a portentous-sounding narrator called search "the final frontier" and noted it was a "five, six, uh, multiyear mission"— prominently featuring James Gandolfini reprising his role as Tony Soprano to say "bing" before concluding with a cheery "back to you, Steve." Bing.com will go live on June 3. At least at the outset, Mehdi said, the service will primarily focus on certain topics—among them travel, local information, and shopping.
Microsoft chose Bing, Ballmer said, because it wanted a short one-syllable name that could "verb up"—in the way people say "Xeroxing" copies or "Googling" search results—and was inoffensive in several languages. (Fans of HBO's The Sopranos who recall the Ba-Da-Bing strip club that characters frequently called "the Bing" may disagree.)
Search results appear on Bing in a remarkably similar way to the generic display on Google (GOOG). As All Things Digital's Walt Mossberg said onstage, they're essentially "blue results on a white background," right down to the search ads appearing on the right side of the screen. But Bing also displays a tabbed tool bar, along the left side of results, that directs users to more topical results based on what they're searching for.
Loads of Information
Powered in part by key Microsoft acquisitions, such as semantic search provider Powerset and travel site Farecast, which predicts the likelihood of airfares rising or falling, Bing broadens the concept of what a search engine can provide, with a lot more information available to consumers on the search results page, without requiring clicking through to external sites.
A search for musical artists—demonstrated with country superstar Taylor Swift and idiosyncratic Jill Sobule (the apparent mascot of All Things Digital, owing to her multiple appearances at the conference)—lets users access, through the tabs on the left side, videos and images of the stars. Users can watch these videos directly on the search results page. They can also view a remarkable amount of travel data as well, with Farecast-provided predictions of a fare's direction and virtual real-time flight information being made available in the search results page.
Among other things, Mehdi said, Bing's product-related searches can provide users with a sense of how positive or negative comments regarding that product are across a wide variety of sites that host such user comments. A search for "San Diego" brought up tabs directing users to hotels and local attractions, among other topics.
Bing's features won loud applause several times from a tough, tech-savvy crowd that was not as generous to other product demonstrations at this conference. One Bing feature popular with the crowd was how the search engine, when prompted to search a major company's name, will pull up a customer-service number for that company and display it prominently in the search results. (And, yes, a search brought up a Microsoft customer-service number.)
Bing's Marketing Budget
Despite the applause, several conference attendees, including Mossberg and former IAC Interactive (IACI) executives in the crowd noted similarities between Bing and IAC's Ask.com when it underwent an extensive revamp earlier this decade. The new Ask.com won good reviews and then eked out share gains off a small base aided by a large ad campaign. But those gains "melted away," Mossberg said. Ballmer countered by saying Microsoft had earmarked a large marketing budget for Bing, one "big enough that I had to gulp when I approved it."
Earlier in the conference, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz said Microsoft would have to offer "boatloads of money" if it wants to succeed in buying her company. Asked for his take on a possible partnership or deal with Yahoo (YHOO), following a long failed acquisition dance between the two companies, Ballmer gave a pro forma response: a search partnership could be interesting, an acquisition less so, I have nothing to announce, etc. He also revealed that Bartz, who spoke at the conference on May 27, left Ballmer a note in the conference green room. Essentially it said, according to Mossberg and Ballmer, that it would take much more than makeup to make Ballmer look presentable.