Does Bing have a future?

I've never been addicted to drugs, but watching Microsoft's seemingly never-ending drive to introduce a search engine that sticks helps me understand why the company simply can't say no.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)First, the Redmond software giant's bread and butter, Windows and Office, are failing businesses. Although they're still hugely profitable, selling boxes of disc-based software is yesterday's business model. Microsoft needs to replace those revenue streams. Soon.

Second, search is key to online supremacy. If we trust search, we're more inclined to trust the related online services, too. Which means we'll spend more time using them -- which ultimately drives advertising. Remember that part about replacing revenue streams?

Bing is Microsoft's most serious effort yet to challenge Google's dominance in search. Sure, we heard the same thing when Windows Live Search was announced, and when MSN Search came out. In fact we've heard the same thing every time they've rebranded, relaunched, and remarketed the same basic search service over the last decade. And every time they've convinced us that their offering really was different, we played with it for a few minutes, yawned, and went right back to using Google.

And there's the problem: Microsoft has been so busy trying to out-Google Google that it's failed to establish a compelling story of its own. If Windows Live Search was such a great service on its own merits, Microsoft wouldn't have had to pay folks to use it.

But on the assumption that Bing really is worthy of more than a five-minute peek, and on the assumption that it's categorically better than Google in its ability to find the things we're really looking for, as it stands now Microsoft is still on the search road to nowhere. Here's why:

Time marches on. Just because something's good enough today doesn't necessarily mean it'll be good enough tomorrow. Google has mastered the art of rapid, iterative feature releases. Competitors can't afford to introduce tools that benchmark Google on a point-in-time basis. Rather, they must view product development as a continuous process that rewards first-to-market players and spanks everyone else. It's a cultural thing, and Microsoft's culture needs a reboot in this regard.

What Microsoft must do: Massively increase its R&D investments in Bing to keep the feature pipeline stuffed to the gills. Toss out the roadmap that focuses solely on big bang product updates and instead empower small teams of independently managed developers to rapidly incubate new features and distribute them online on a near-continuous basis.

Windows and Office are irrelevant. Microsoft's own franchises often work at cross purposes to each other. It doesn't dare introduce a fully capable, advertising- or subscription-supported, Web-based version of Office because it could cannibalize existing sales of Office 2007. Similarly -- and with the notable Mac exception -- it shies away from promoting its products on non-Windows platforms for fear of weakening the Windows ecosystem. Google, unencumbered by such legacy, has no such worries.

What Microsoft must do: Be willing to undercut its Windows and Office franchises by pushing Bing-based services on every viable platform. Only by actively marketing Bing on any device running any operating system can Microsoft preserve the critical mass of users that have grown up using Microsoft products. Otherwise, as Google's online services become ever more capable, users will have fewer reasons to stick with Microsoft.

So is Windows Mobile. As much as Android represents Google's most serious attempt to claim its turf in the mobile market, it hasn't forgotten other platforms, either. Google's Web-based apps play just as nicely on a BlackBerry or iPhone as they do on a G1 or G2. It isn't enough to have integrated Bing apps available only on Windows Mobile devices.

What Microsoft must do: Rush out mobile apps on all major platforms that deliver rich end-user experiences no matter whose logo is on the hardware. Microsoft must also work closely with carriers to include pre-installed bundles on smartphones and feature phones, and to incorporate the logo into ongoing marketing to get on-the-go types to think Bing first.

"If Windows Live Search was such a great service on its own merits, Microsoft wouldn't have had to pay folks to use it."

When I look back a decade to the first time I used Google, I remember how transformative the experience was. Until then, search was a hit-and-miss affair. Sometimes I found what I needed. More often than not, I had to hunt around for a bit. Google changed the paradigm with eerily-effective algorithms that seemed to read my mind. I've trusted it from that moment, and the regular addition of features, services and applications has only sealed my day-to-day loyalty.

Fast forward to this week, and as much fun as I had playing with Bing, I didn't find the experience transformative. I went back to using Google after an hour because despite the fact that Microsoft clearly caught up, it hadn't leapfrogged the industry. Microsoft needs another paradigm shift over the next year or two if it hopes to break the Google addiction of folks like me. That shift will come in three areas:

1. Applications. Truly Office-like apps that are as straightforward and cross-platform friendly as Google Mail and Google Docs would be a nice start. Seamless cloud-based storage -- SkyDrive, anyone? -- would seal the deal for me. Right now, Windows Live is a ponderous offering that pales in comparison to Google's offerings.

2. Cross-platform utility. Bing search (and the related services that I'm hoping Microsoft is already working on) must integrate as cleanly on a laptop as on a BlackBerry or iPhone. Otherwise, there's no reason for anyone to dump Google.

3. Innovation. Microsoft's culture needs to shift to one that supports near-constant introduction of incremental improvements to its core online properties. Greater agility here will allow it to shift from me-too introductions to paradigm-shifting ones that make it easier to justify switching.

Bing could be the core brand that solidifies Microsoft's go-forward online strategy. But to get anywhere, Microsoft must be willing to turn its misdirected addiction to failing search strategies and non-integrated applications into something more comprehensive, disruptive and ultimately transformational. Does it have the guts?

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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