THE CHOICE OF BING as the Internet search vendor in Apple's Iphone OS 4 might at first glance seem like vindication for Microsoft, but in reality it's little more than a token gesture.
Microsoft deserves a nod for the way it dragged its search business from years of irrelevance into becoming the most talked about search engine of the past year. To Microsoft's credit, Bing hasn't fallen flat on its face, even managing to post very modest increases in market share due to it's deal with Yahoo.
As Google's relationship with Apple has turned sour, the idea of Bing displacing Google as the default search provider on the Iphone gained momentum. Apple's silence on the matter was punctuated by Apple CEO Steve Jobs' rant against Google and his firm's lawsuit against the manufacturer of Google's showpiece smartphones for it's Android OS, HTC. The lofty goal of replacing Google has itself been replaced with Jobs merely putting Bing on the substitute bench.
The lukewarm response from Jobs is more likely to leave Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer throwing chairs than throwing a party. After all, Yahoo has been the alternate search vendor since the first Iphone came out and that hasn't exactly lit a fire beneath the floundering search portal and its fight against obscurity.
As Ballmer bangs his head against the wall, he should be relieved that Jobs didn't give Bing a wide berth. Instead Apple's dear leader even proclaimed that Microsoft has "done a great job" and that it was "cool", quite a compliment from the head of the firm that is seen by many as the epitome of cool. As for Microsoft, Jobs' apparent benevolence might be the last opportunity the Vole has to gain a foothold in mobile search.
Microsoft shouldn't expect much help from Google, as its army of Android smartphone users grows with every passing week. The search giant doesn't allow alternatives to its own product on Android and while Microsoft could, like it did on the Iphone, create a Bing application, given the tight integration Android has with Google's search, it's highly unlikely that the majority of Android users would bother to use it.
So why did Jobs give Bing such a glowing endorsement? Was he just throwing a bone out to its rival that effectively saved it from going under all those years ago? Or was Jobs just trying to let Google know that despite Android making significant gains in the market, he can still play kingmaker. Actually it's a bit of both, we think.
While Apple fans like to paint Microsoft as the biggest threat to the firm after Mac clones, Jobs has long since realised that Apple needs Microsoft, only now the roles are reversed. Aside from direct financial backing, for a long time Apple has relied on the continuing availability of Microsoft's Office suite to push Macintoshes into corporate environments.
In the last decade Microsoft's power in this area has rapidly diminished, with free alternatives such as Openoffice and Google Docs now offering similar features. However, Microsoft's influence over the Mac extends deeper than just its bloated productivity suite.
When the Vole decided to call a halt to Internet Explorer for the Mac, Apple was eventually forced to develop an alternative, which thankfully is far more standards compliant than anything Microsoft has ever produced. Remember the gusto with which Jobs introduced Boot Camp, the bootloader that allows users to easily boot between Mac OS X and Windows? The fact that Apple had to go out of its comfort zone on more than one occasion to compensate for and accommodate Microsoft's products is testament both to how much power Microsoft had gained in Apple's market and Jobs' need to reclaim his control.
By letting Bing come and play in his Iphone world, Jobs must have felt some sort of vindication that after years of accommodating Microsoft's whims, he was able to act as gatekeeper to something that he knows means a lot to Microsoft. Like any stage performer, Jobs knows that he must "keep 'em wanting more", and so he did, by not offering the whole shooting match.
Will Apple's selection of Bing make any real difference to its search fortunes? No. Not unless Microsoft manages to pony up enough cash and tune its products to Jobs' needs. Otherwise it is likely that Apple might return to Google as its default Internet search offering, perhaps using that as a bargaining threat.
For Microsoft, search isn't the only aspect of the Iphone it can target as Apple and Google drift further apart. The Iphone's built-in maps application uses data from Google with Yahoo providing data for the weather and financial applications, all of which are potential battlegrounds for Bing.
Microsoft does of course have Windows Phone 7 coming up and, like Android and Google, we expect Microsoft to integrate Bing into the operating system extremely tightly. However given that Windows Phone 7 looks to have all the hallmarks of Windows ME, Microsoft's best hope for mobile search is that Apple users pick its search service over its rival's.
Search engines need mobile devices not just for search but to help gain access to data that can be used to bolster value added features such as geo-location based advertising services and augmented reality. These data mashups are becoming increasingly important as devices allow for what search vendors like to term 'rich experiences'. Though that might sound like mere marketing guff, providing all these rich experiences in real time is a non-trivial technology problem.
To that end Bing has announced that it will be 'trending' the social networking websites Facebook and Twitter, even providing reasons why particular topics are popular. Real time Twitter search is nothing new, as both Google and Bing have been doing it for some time, but their inclusion of social context shows where search is heading. Results no longer have to be relevant to just the subject matter, but also to social context, location and time.
Mobile search not only gives search vendors and their marketing departments access to 'eyeballs' but also to data that includes fine grained location information, which is the type of data that is a goldmine for advertisers. And it's those spinners that are the real customers that both Microsoft and Google want to woo.
Jobs' pleasantries cost Apple nothing, however given the attention it has generated, it's shown how much power Apple and the Iphone still wield in the mobile domain. Sadly for Microsoft, even with Jobs' blessing, Bing like many of Microsoft's products has to be forced onto users to gain more market share. µ
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