In the New York Times, Robert Cryan and Martin Hutchison of Reuters BreakingViews suggest that Microslft sell its Bing search engine, either outright or in exchange for stock in a company that can do more with it than rank a distant #2 to Google while piling up billions per year in losses, which is what Bing is doing for Microsoft right now.
Bing is a good search engine, but it still seems derivative. Even where it leads, it seems to follow.
Take “bird’s eye views” in map searches. That is, views from a low-flying plane, rather than a from a satellite in space. Bing had it long before Google came up with the same thing, and does a better job of integrating it. Case in point: the Rialto Mercado district of Venice, which I covered (using a Google Maps image) a couple weeks ago, when I was there:
Yet who (besides me and too few others) knows that Bing’s bird’s eye views are better? (With real street names, rather than a scattering of commercial locations?) And why hasn’t Microsoft challenged Google on this and other fronts more aggressively? I think the reason is that all Microsoft’s marketing efforts are all going into revenue production with their customers, which are advertisers, rather than users.
So here’s a suggestion for Microsoft: Don’t sell Bing. Sell Bing-based services directly to users — and fight Google where they’re weak: with personal attention and support.
Do that by making customers of users. Sell premium search (and other) services, and provide hand-holding support. Hell, I’ll pay for organic searches (that is, ones where results aren’t buried under Himilayas of SEO). Ad-driven pollution of search results is Google’s biggest problem right now, whether it knows that or not (and I’m sure it does). And, for all its virtues (there are many, most of which are non-trivial), Google remains a server-based company. It isn’t personal, and probably can’t be.
For all its faults (and there are many, also non-trivial), Microsoft has always been a personal computing company. This is a huge advantage. The future, like the past, is personal. Not just “social.” (Which, in the business sense, has come to mean advertising-supported.)
People will pay for value. They always have, and they always will. As Don Marti once said, “Information doesn’t want to be free. It wants to be $6.95.” There is a market here. People saying “Everybody expects everything to be free now” only masks the opportunity. (And, while I’m no fan of iTunes, Apple proved with it that people were willing to pay more than nothing for music, if it was easy.)
Yes, keep the free search engine up, and keep providing plenty of free services. But also remember that the free that matters most to people is freedom. That’s the ultimate secret ingredient, if you really want to get personal. “Social” from the start on the Web has never been about personal freedom. It’s been full of traps: walled gardens, coerced loyalty, isolation from personal data, stalking by robot advertising slave files… The list is a long one. So sell freedom too. Help move the World Live Web evolve from the calf-cow model to the human-human one. Of course you’ll need to make your services unique. But you can also help customers in ways nobody else (at your scale, anyway) is today: by helping them collect data for themselves, so they can decide on their own what to do with it. Make personal data portable as well as personal. Join the personal data ecosystem. Be a VRM as well as a CRM company.
Sure, selling ad-free services might undermine some of Bing’s current ad-based business model, but so what? You’re already losing $billions — and it will undermine Google’s model too. (What could be more competitive? And it’s going to happen anyway.) Go back to your roots. Get personal again. As Dave Winer often says, zig where the other guys zag. So stop being derivative. Take the lead. It’s there for the taking. Nothing could be bigger. Microsoft’s biggest successes already prove that. You can prove it again.