Search war is on: Microsoft's Bing fires salvo at Google

Steve Ballmer unveils Bing (aka Kumo) in bid to take search in new direction

After weeks of speculation and pre-release ballyhoo by bloggers and online commentators, Microsoft Corp. this morning took the wraps off its new search site, Bing.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made the announcement at the All Things Digital Conference in Carlsbad, California. The long-awaited upgrade to the company's less than beloved Live Search service, Bing, formerly known as Kumo, comes with a phalanx of related services, like Bing Travel, Bing Cashback and Bing Maps for Enterprise.

And Microsoft, in an attempt to stand out from rival and market top dog Google Inc., is trying to avoid the "search engine" moniker, calling its newly updated service a "decision engine." The service is expected to be rolled out over the next few days with an official launch set for June 3.

But repeated attempts to access the site during the first one to two hours after the announcement resulted in a blank, white screen.

"Microsoft has really trailed miserably the Google success in the search space," said Hadley Reynolds, a senior director at IDC. "They really need to come up with something extraordinary to change the momentum. And they're making a big attempt with this release to change the field. They're taking on changing people's expectations about what using search should be -- the experience of using search."

With Bing.com, Microsoft is hoping to help users get the information they're searching for faster, or with fewer clicks. The service is designed, for instance, to offer pop-up windows that will summarize the information on a Web site to save the user from clicking in only to find it's not what they need. The site also is set up to organize search results with navigation and search tools on the left-hand side of the page, as well as offering up different categories of results and even the user's sought-after information on the search results page.

"Today, search engines do a decent job of helping people navigate the Web and find information, but they don't do a very good job of enabling people to use the information they find," said Ballmer. "When we set out to build Bing, we grounded ourselves in a deep understanding of how people really want to use the Web. Bing is an important first step forward in our long-term effort to deliver innovations in search that enable people to find information quickly and use the information they've found to accomplish tasks and make smart decisions."

Online search analyst Stephen Arnold, who runs the Web site ArnoldIT.com, said Microsoft took the wrong road in coming out with a search engine that will compete with Google.

"You just can't do something as good or a little better than Google," said Arnold. "If you're Microsoft, you simply cannot do an incremental release. With Kumo, the premise is wrong. Microsoft [should have] built a leap frog service that supports fundamentally new queries. How authoritative is a document? How authoritative is a person? Who touched a document or changed it? How much can I trust this answer?... Next generation search will allow that type of processing. That's where Microsoft needs to be going. [Bing] does not carry Microsoft into that space."

While Microsoft may have some interesting new features in Bing, Arnold said Google has a lot of new features up its own sleeve and the company will be able to pull them out and take some of the luster off of the Bing unveiling.

But IDC's Reynolds counters that Microsoft is, in fact, attempting a leap frog move with Bing.

The user interface alone is enough to make a lot of people take notice, he added.

"They want to provide people with a more visually sophisticated and attractive experience," said Reynolds. "It's immediately image-oriented -- a media-rich environment. They have photographic backgrounds on the pages and they integrated [photos and videos] in with your results. If you're looking up rock stars, you're going to get links to their songs and DVDs and images and videos on YouTube."

Both analysts, however, agree that Google has not been sitting on its hands and has been waiting for someone -- whether the likes of Microsoft or Yahoo or an unknown player -- to rise up and fight them for the search title. And Google is ready for the fight.

"Google has definitely been adding enhancements and they're constantly adjusting things in the background," said Reynolds. "They not at all have been sitting on their laurels, watching the money roll in. They've been doing a lot of work and watching the money roll in."

And Google will patiently watch its new competitor, according to Reynolds, and see if Bing can garner more than a single-digit percentage of the search market. Let Microsoft dig deep into its coffers to advertise as long as it doesn't significantly impact Google. However, if Microsoft does start to gain some traction, Google may have to, at the least, rethink its interface model, said Reynolds.

Then the real competition, and innovation, begins.

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