- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

The buzz was about Bing on Thursday as Microsoft Corp.’s Steve Ballmer took center stage at the D: All Things Digital conference near San Diego to announce the next step for the Live Search technology. Come Wednesday, Bing should be available to one and all at www.bing.com.

The thing that Bing hopes to provide is context: not just search results for “diabetes,” as a promotional video shows, but diabetes information from the Mayo Clinic, so you know it’s reliable data.

Microsoft says Bing incorporates “a new approach to go beyond search to build what we call a decision engine. With a powerful set of intuitive tools on top of a world-class search service, Bing will help you make smarter, faster decisions. We included features that deliver the best results, presented in a more organized way to simplify key tasks and help you make important decisions faster.”

That’s all fine and good, but the proof will be in the experience, something few have enjoyed as this column went to press. Microsoft can produce a better demo than almost any other tech company in history, but it’s the real-life experience that counts.

At the same time, we can do better in the search-engine arena. Google is great for finding stuff quickly, but sometimes it finds too much. Google can also be hit or miss: Sometimes it will find the name, address and phone number of a particular business, and sometimes it won’t. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but Google’s global footprint is so huge that we expect a lot from it.

Oddly enough, I’m finding more success in searching with things that aren’t even search engines, per se. Lately I have been finding many of the people I need to contact through Facebook, not Google.

On top of that, specialized search engines and related sites remain in vogue. Kayak.com, for example, can often find lower airfares than sites such as Travelocity or Expedia. I don’t believe I ever used Google to search for a fare.

But that doesn’t mean Bing will have a clean shot at search engine supremacy. Several things stand in its way, and some of them might not be cured by the purported $80 million to $100 million Microsoft is prepared to spend advertising the new venture.

One of the key performance issues will be its accessibility via mobile devices like smart phones. Google has the Android operating software for a smart phone being sold via T-Mobile. That phone has Google search built in. Got a BlackBerry or an iPhone? Google’s there too, via the Google Mobile App that brings voice-based search to the device.

As far as I can tell, Bing will start out with nothing for mobile users.

Oops. Mobile search is of great interest to the millions of smart phone users (including, perhaps, the BlackBerry in chief at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.), so it’s an area Microsoft will have to tackle, and quickly.

Also key is how the technology behind Bing performs. During the prelaunch, attempts to view various previews at www.discoverbing.com drew repeated error messages saying “There was a problem with the video ID that was passed.”

If you get similar messages on Wednesday, just be glad you’re not the Bing product manager.

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