A Bing and a Wave: Microsoft and Google show how competition drives innovation

The future is a four-letter word. In Microsoft’s case that word is Bing.

The software giant this week revealed the newest version of its online search engine, formerly known as Live Search, now rebranded as ‘Bing’.

But there is more to the relaunch than a bizarre new name ("We needed a name that says 'this is all about search'," said CEO Steve Ballmer at the launch, peculiarly). Microsoft has rebuilt the search engine using technology it picked up last year with acquisition of semantic analysis tool vendor Powerset.

Bing, Microsoft insists, is in fact a ‘decision engine’. By analysing the content of web pages, the technology promises to answer questions, such as “Where can I find the cheapest flights to Rome?” not just return a list of web pages.

Microsoft hopes this functionality will help it to make a dent in Google’s giant online search market share (74% this month, according to HitWise). But it has an added advantage; by retrieving content from the web and presenting it on the results page, Bing precludes the need to leave the site itself.

That could that mean that users are exposed to the advertising that Microsoft serves to Bing pages for longer than they are Google’s search pages for example.

You can watch Microsoft’s presentation video about Bing – which is due to be publically accessible in early June – at www.decisionengine.com.

Not to be outdone, Google revealed a technical marvel of its own this week, although again there is nothing to play with yet. Google Wave is, the company says, an attempt to create email “as though it was invented today”.

Google argues that the online communication tools we use today, such as email and instant messaging, are outdated attempts to replicate pre-Internet technologies – snail mail and telephone calls respectively. A communications platform with the possibilities of the web built in from the ground up has far greater potential, and the company says that Google Wave is precisely this.

A ‘wave’ – in the system’s metaphor – is a conversation. That conversation can be made up of emails, instant messages, photos, ‘tweets’ – any form of online information transfer. Instead of an inbox full of emails, the user is instead presented with a list of current cross-media ‘waves’.

An advantage of this approach that will be of particular interest to IT managers is the fact that each component of a wave is stored once ‘in the cloud’ and shared with all parties. That spells an end to the runaway duplication that universally occurs with email systems, creating an unmanageable and expensive storage burden.

All we have of Google Wave today is a screen shot. [UPDATE – there are now a series of videos up on YouTube. Thanks, commenter Stuart]. But the concept has been received well, and the product could well steal webmail market share from Microsoft and, more importantly, market leader Yahoo! It could also boost business adoption of Google’s online application suite.

One thing to note: industry observers fear that Google is becoming ‘another Microsoft’; antitrust lawyers are circling, negative newspaper coverage is mounting. But as far as Google the software provider is concerned, the addition of ‘another Microsoft’ should be welcomed.

The Seattle company has for too long had next to no competition when it comes to desktop applications, and they have stagnated as a result. But as this week has shown, the competition between the two companies is driving innovation.

Equally, Microsoft’s attempts to become ‘another Google’, however unlikely that may be, should also be lauded if only because they keep the search giant on its toes.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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