Every couple of months, new rumors about Microsoft trying to sell off its Bing search engine pop up. At some point late last year, the word on the street was that if then-CEO candidate Stephen Elop would take the reins of the company, he would sell Bing as soon as possible. After last week’s Build developer conference, I think we can now put those rumors to rest. Bing is now a core part of Microsoft’s strategy, and there is no way it could sell Bing without disrupting many of the services it has recently built.
There are some credible reports that back in 2012, Microsoft did indeed try to sell Bing to Facebook. But that was 2012 when Bing was “just” a search engine. Today, things look different. Bing offers much more than basic search and it’s become a core platform for Microsoft.
The best example for how important Bing has become to Microsoft is probably Cortana — the company’s newly announced personal digital assistant. It pulls from a huge variety of services that are all part of the larger Bing ecosystem. It uses Bing’s entity engine to find facts, Bing’s machine learning tools, the Bing-branded voice-recognition service to actually understand its users, and the Bing stream-processing engine to parse real-time information from a huge range of sources.
The jury is still out if Cortana can compete with the likes of Siri and Google Now (or if users are even all that interested in these tools to begin with), but none of what Microsoft built here would have been possible without Bing as the platform to power it all.
It’s worth remembering that Bing isn’t only responsible for powering big set pieces like Cortana. It’s also baked into lots of small features in Windows, including the built-in search tools. Bing Code Search makes life a little bit easier for developers in Visual Studio, too. Bing Maps may not get a lot of play in the press (or with users, I think), but it’s a credible alternative to Google Maps and its 3D maps (still in preview and only on Windows 8.1) are actually more detailed than Google’s.
It’s impossible to know if this was always Microsoft’s master plan for Bing — but chances are it wasn’t. Now, however, it looks as if this attempt at building a smart search engine has given Microsoft a way to be a bit more agile in reacting to market demands. While it isn’t leapfrogging the competition, it can at least offer a meaningful challenge to some of the recent advances from Google and Apple. Whether that’s enough remains to be seen, but at least it gives the rest of the field a reason to stay paranoid and push their services forward, too.