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Microsoft's Google challenger is not a search engine

Decides to channel ghost of Friends

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Microsoft likes to take simple, everyday technologies and deliberately inflate them, making them seem greater than they really are.

The benefits of Windows 95, Windows Vista, .NET, and every version of Office and its related "information worker" applications have been blown out of all proportion in their time.

Microsoft can't let the simple utility or innovation in its software speak for itself. The company in the 1990s based its work on simplifying complexity through the interface or through integration of software, and in making computing more affordable to ordinary users and developers.

With its supposed search-engine challenger to Google, Microsoft is once again trying to make us lose touch with reality. Having finally settled on a name - Bing - Microsoft's marketing drones probably believe they've come up with a clever wheeze against Google by adopting that old trick of redefining the market and thereby defining the competition out of that market. Bing is, therefore, not a search engine, it's a "decision engine".

Curiously for all their smarts, the Microsoft team picked the name of a neurotic and uncool character from the defunct TV series Friends - Chandler. This wouldn't be the first time Microsoft's failed to do sufficient due diligence on a product name.

Bing was officially unveiled Thursday with the usual accompaniment of marketing collateral that Microsoft likes to line up with each new piece of software. We have fact sheets, screenshots, and the usual paid-by-Microsoft research - this time by Ipsos - to support the thesis behind calling Bing a "decision engine". Also, hoping to create demand, Bing is not yet actually available - it'll go worldwide on June 3.

I can't wait - really, I can't. I must stay up all night just to be the first to Bing myself.

According to Microsoft's paid research monkeys, the mind-numbingly obvious finding of an Ipsos poll of 1,156 people - there's no indication of who was polled, over what time frame, or what the margin of error is - is that 66 per cent of people are increasingly turning to search engines to assist in making decisions.

"No longer satisfied with the status quo of search, Microsoft designed Bing as a Decision Engine to provide you with intelligent search tools to help you simplify tasks and make more informed choices, from mapping out the fastest route to get home to researching a product purchase or planning a trip," Microsoft said in its Bing fact sheet.

Bing will combine vertical-sector search in health, shopping, travel, and your local area. It also packs in tonnes of features - Best Match, Deep Links, Quick Preview, Web Groups, Related Searches, and Quick Tabs among them.

What we're looking at is another Microsoft product that's taken ideas from different product groups and teams working on features, and ladled them into one to bombard the average user with features that are well beyond the scope of how people actually use search.

This is not an unusual step for Microsoft. Internet Explorer 8 suffers from confused surfaces, compared to the relatively clean Firefox or Chrome. Office is packed with more features than the average user wants or even knows exist - the Office 2007 ribbon interface was a backtrack to make accessing some of these features simpler.

Behind the scenes, Microsoft's messing around with its online-maps rival to Google Maps. Live Search Maps, the consumer version, has now been rebranded Bing Maps. Microsoft Virtual Earth is now Bing Maps for the Enterprise - a rebranding that's utterly pointless to anyone outside Microsoft's marketing team or those watching the company.

Internet search is just that. And unfortunately for Microsoft, in the same way the desktop and office productivity markets has been shaped culturally and from a technical perspective by Windows and Office, Google has shaped the culture and technology of internet search.

Google solidified the experience during a 10-year timeframe. That's about the same time it took Microsoft to solidify the experience on the desktop and in Office - an experience people in desktop productivity software and Linux have struggled against. Google has set the tone so much that "googling" someone or something has become a commonly accepted and recognized term, just like hoovering or reaching for a kleenex - even if Google doesn't like it.

Expect Microsoft's chief executive and other executives and evangelists inside the company to keep dropping the phrase "decision engine" at events for about six months, and then watch it slowly fade as if it never existed. This has happened before, with decision to slap .NET on every single tools and server product and then to backtrack.

Calling internet search something else, like a decision engine, is artifice. And while paid research, fact sheets, a reported TV ad campaign, and - we suspect - the kinds of videos and research that have been used to promote IE 8 might be what Microsoft does best when it comes to new launches or attacking the competition, this is a different world.

Google succeeded thanks to the power of its search algorithms and its simple and accessible interface, and because it had time for these to spread slowly and consistently - almost virally.

For Bing to move the needle significantly against Google, and for Microsoft to change the landscape Google has shaped, it'll need similar conditions and not marketing fluff or short-lived TV campaigns. It might also need a different name: seriously, who wants to get Binged or to Bing themselves online?

Judging by the way companies like Corel, projects such as OpenOffice, and all those Linux initiatives have failed on the desktop against Microsoft's Office and Windows landscape, though, the chances are not good Bing will ever succeed in making the change Microsoft wants or needs. ®

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