Industry titans Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. are getting rave reviews this week about innovative new approaches to Internet search and communications, respectively.
Even Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak told a reporter that Microsoft's new Bing search engine looks "astounding" and that he's "a big fan, now."
There's much to like. In a nutshell, Bing does more to surface information you're probably looking for than Google does. For example, if you search for a company, one of the top results will present links to customer service, store locator -- that kind of information.
If you haven't seen it, go here to see the Microsoft pitch for Bing.
Looks great, right? What's not to like. Well...
If you'll notice, the URL for the video link above is: DecisionEngine.com. And that's exactly what Bing does better than Google. It makes decisions for you. Of more concern is that it makes decisions for all users. So what's wrong with that?
Well, nothing for you and me. For individual people, Bing is a nice alternative to Google and the other search engines. It can save you time and hassle for some kinds of searches -- no question about it.
The problem is how Bing might affect culture, especially if Google copies some of its features to neutralize Microsoft as a competitor. In other words, if search engines that made decisions for you is a trend, it's probably a bad trend, not a good one.
Decisions are -- and must be -- based on value judgments. To use Bing is to see the Internet through Microsoft's corporate values. For example:
- Bing brings "the best match to the top," not the most popular. In other words, Microsoft is overriding the democratic approach for an elitist, we-know-best approach.
- The demo video shows a search for "home depot," which offers alternatives to the left of the results, including "Ace Hardware" and "Walmart." That the alternative to a mega-chain is another mega-chain is a value judgment. Why isn't the mom-and-pop hardware store in my neighborhood the best alternative to Home Depot? To some it is. To Microsoft, it isn't. Could Bing, if popular, accelerate the demise of locally owned businesses in favor of giant corporations?
- "Bing's health results bring together resources from the top medical sources in the world, including the Mayo Clinic," Microsoft says in the demo. Microsoft's value judgments about whom to trust for medical information win the day, namely conventional Western medical authorities. Alternative therapies, which may favor diet and exercise for obesity or cardiovascular disease over drugs and surgery, are buried. The whole complex debate about whether the Western medical establishment is overly influenced by pharmaceutical industry pressure, insurance industry pressure, and so on, is settled before you even start exploring your options. Microsoft has chosen sides -- for all of us.
Yes, Bing is easy. It's always easy to have someone else choose your values and make your decisions for you. But is that good for society?
Google Wave also demos well. And what's not to like? The prototype promises the joining together of e-mail, chat, photo sharing and other forms of communication into a single online app.
At first glance, the "hosted" messaging system of Wave looks compelling. You can comment to a specific part of a conversation by dropping in your note right there in the message (rather than copying and pasting).
This feature looks great on stage, but I fear in practice it will result in confusion. It's sort of like how Google currently does Gmail. Unlike other e-mail systems, where the most recent message is at the top, Gmail has some mysterious system for how it orders threaded comments. I and others I've spoken to constantly find ourselves confused about where the most recent comment is. The thread feels shuffled.
Wave looks like it could make this situation even worse. After bouncing stuff back and forth, and after people comment on various parts of the thread, adding commentary at the top, bottom and middle of the original message, clarity about what's old, new, moot or relevant seems unlikely.
The other major problem with Wave is its generous contribution to the larger problem of over complexity and information overload. There is so much going on here that Wave fights against the quest for clarity, simplicity and minimalism - the qualities that made Google famous. This is essentially what Microsoft attempted with Outlook, and the result was bloat. " It's a floor wax AND a dessert topping! " I'm not sure we need yet another app that does everything.
What's bad about both
The biggest problem with Bing and Wave is that both are on the wrong side of two technology-design battles raging in the industry. The first is the battle over linearity, and the other is the battle for mobility.
Have you noticed that every massively popular new way to communicate in the past few years has shared the attribute of perfect linearity? First e-mail, then chat, then blogs, then Twitter -- all provided the benefit of strict, top-to-bottom, most-recent-first organization. Linearity imposes clarity on information, and puts the user's mind at ease. All attempts to "improve" these media with non-linear views have failed. People love linearity.
But this is exactly how both Microsoft and Google are trying to improve search and communication, respectively: by introducing non-linearity. In the case of Bing, Microsoft displays results in order down the middle of the page. But there are alternative results on the left as well. It's not a big deal, and Google has introduced similar non-linearity in recent years. But Google got rich and famous by providing a single search box, followed by a single ordered list of results.
In the case of Wave, the many killer features may be overshadowed by the amount of "stuff" happening all over the page. I'd love to have the good features, such as the ability to see the other person typing, but in a single, linear column from newest to oldest.
Finally, constant improvements in the quality of mobile devices have created the possibility of sites that work great on screens both big and small. I want giant companies that play in both spaces, such as Microsoft and Google, to drive this initiative. They should seek ways to get everything working great on all devices, and to avoid systems where there's a PC version and a separate mobile version. Both Bing and Wave appear to be optimized for big screens and unrealistic for phones and other mobile devices.
This was a great week for announcements about innovative new products. But announcements are really nothing more than sales pitches. Let's all reserve judgment about these two exciting new technologies until we can see for ourselves what effect they'll have on what's really important: Our ability to focus, think clearly and make decisions objectively.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org, or his blog, The Raw Feed.