Books written by Ray Sullivan

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Will Microsoft Drop Bing?

Microsoft are in for a busy year, by all accounts. Windows is scheduled to have another upgrade, to 8.2. This is eagerly awaited by those who want to stay with Microsoft but don't want to play with the metro interface. The Start button is returning and users will be able to pretend they are on an upgraded Windows 7 environment without ever seeing the metro tiles again. Those tiles will also be capable of being placed on the 'traditional' Windows screen and run like icons. I'm pretty cool with the metro look, but understand why people don't want to change from what they know. In fact, if Microsoft pull this off they will have totally blind-sided Apple with a two faced interface, one for work, one for play, all in one package.

But this isn't even the biggest challenge for Microsoft. They are going to get a new CEO mid year when Steve Ballmer stands down. Apparently they have narrowed the list to twenty candidates. I floated my resume, but I'm guessing I didn't make the shortlist. Some of the candidates are internal departmental chiefs and some are from outside of the company. One who can claim to be a bit of both groups is Stephen Elop, currently deputy CEO of Nokia, the company Microsoft is busy buying.

Elop has played a ballsy game because he has stated he will slay a couple of sacred cows if he gets the gig. Specifically he says he'll sell off XBox and will kill Bing. Seemingly he wants Microsoft to get back to basics, to re-entrench in their core business model. Personally I think he'll have an uphill battle with both ideas, particularly since Ballmer wants both to be ring-fenced. Of course, like all big organisations, his words only carry weight while he's the boss and I'm sure there are hawks and doves in the upper echelons for both products. What I think Elop's doing is ensuring he controls the conversation if he gets called forward, can make his case, concede where necessary and attempt to make the board think he is a leader prepared to make hard decisions.

In the final analysis, do his ideas make sense? Well, unsurprisingly I don't have access to the critical numbers needed to decide if either or both systems deserve to be culled, but I can make an educated guess at the practical issues.

Taking XBox first, it probably soaks up a huge amount of resources and is attempting to make Microsoft look like a viable content provider to challenge iTunes. If it was sold off Microsoft would still reap the Windows spin off advantages without having the operating overheads. But they would lose control over XBox just as it is maturing. XBox will become less of a games console and more of a human to machine interface in the next couple of years and I'm looking forward to that ride. I think selling it now would be a marginal short term gain and a long term loss to the company. Hopefully Microsoft will see sense and keep it.

But Bing is a different problem. I've been consciously using Bing for about six months and can say that generally it is as good as Google most of the time. I don't think it is ever better than Google so by definition it is slightly inferior to the search engine that has become a verb and adjective in most modern languages. It probably costs a shed load of cash to populate and I'm guessing it pulls in a fraction of the revenues that Google gets. However, if Microsoft exits the search engine then the world will be a poorer place. I can still remember the early days of Google when I got the answer to whatever query I made without having to wade through a page of sponsored links. OK, Bing plays the same game, but I think they are more upfront about it, probably because they don't attract as much result skewing investment as Google. If they abandon Bing then there won't be any realistic alternative to Google, who will get ever bigger and more powerful. If only as a market balancing service I hope that Microsoft retain Bing, or maybe they could sell part of it and keep it running at arm's length.

I also hope that everyone reading this blog entry considers using Bing at least once a day out of the many searches you carry out. If you use Internet Explorer you've got a permanent Bing entry box in the top right corner - try it, if only to search for Google. Anyone who has read my blog for a while will know I'm not a big fan of monopolies, and letting Bing go would create the biggest, most influential monopoly this planet has ever seen, one unlikely to be challenged by the likes of the Russian Google, Yandex, for example.

This is going to be a big year for Microsoft. I hope it ends with XBox and Bing intact.

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