Bing is a big money-loser for Microsoft, shedding billions of dollars per year, but the company is far from giving up on beating Google in the search engine wars.
In a New York Times feature published over the weekend, Microsoft laid out its long-term plans for Bing and hints at new features to come. (The article follows an earlier Times opinion piece suggesting that Microsoft should abandon Bing entirely.)
Here's an overview of how Bing plans to take on Google in the years ahead:
Rich Web Apps
Expect Web apps based on HTML5 to play a big role in Bing's future. Qi Lu, president of Microsoft's online services division, describes typing a phrase like "dinner for two on Friday and movie after," and having Bing draw on your personal data -- location, movie and film preferences and so on -- to deliver results.
The app would then go a step further by starting a dialog with the user, listing what's available and asking where the user would like to eat and when. It's an extension of Bing's tendency to display information directly on its search results page, but drawing on more personal data to deliver custom results.
A Desktop App (and Beyond)
Microsoft is working on software, still in the concept stage, called Bing DeskBar. Like Google's existing Google Desktop software, the DeskBar would incorporate local files and Web searches, but it'll also have a "people" category to search e-mails and messages from Facebook and Twitter.
Information will be sorted by "what's most recent, relevant and frequently used," one designer said, and may use the live tile design that Microsoft is introducing to many of its products. There's no word on when this product will launch, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't a big feature in Windows 8.
Friends with Facebook
In the Times story, Microsoft's Lu touts the company's exclusive partnership with Facebook as a first step in delivering more trustworthy search results. Bing already integrates Facebook "Likes" into searches, so you can see, for instance, how many friends have recommended a particular restaurant or movie.
Microsoft has a minority stake in Facebook, and Facebook doesn't get along with Google, so the Bing-Facebook partnership isn't going away anytime soon. I believe this partnership could prove essential for gathering the personal information Microsoft needs for those aforementioned Web apps.
Of course, Microsoft isn't the only company trying to advance search beyond the "10 blue links." Apple is rumored to be building a personal assistant into iOS, drawing on its acquisition of Siri. And in the Times story, Google's search head Amit Singhal dismisses Microsoft's "decision engine" motto as a turn of phrase. The goal of evolving search from data to useful information to knowledge has always been the same, he said.
But at least there's evidence here that Microsoft is thinking beyond a bland feature war against the world's biggest search engine. Let's be honest, that kind of straightforward attack was never going to work.