It's not often that you see Microsoft ahead of the curve. Its recent history is replete with stubbed toes and dropped balls — such as, for instance, missing the early significance of the Internet. Or mobile. Or tablets.
But the company's news that it is opening up its Bing search engine to developers is a major clue that Microsoft thinks it's onto something big. In short, Microsoft is staking out a major claim on the nascent Internet of Things, the term for an interconnected web of devices that will bring much more data and device control to users. If, that is, it ever works.
The Bing announcement at today's Microsoft Build Conference specifically releases application programming interfaces (APIs) that third-party vendors can use to tie into the tools that make Bing function as a search engine. Bing's team is now marketing Bing as a "search platform," which is a rather grandiose term on the surface, but given the potential such a tool could have, it might actually be accurate.
Bing Gets Connected
To understand where this potential comes from, it's important to understand how Bing sees itself in comparison to Google. Most consumers see and use these search engines in the same way: search for X, get Y results. But the underlying motivation of the two tools is much different, according to Stefan Weitz, senior director of Bing.
Bing's engineers, explained Weitz, are building a database that is built on connections. Connections that not only rely on data in indexed links, but also on connections that lead to actions. If you search for a new hair stylist, for instance, one day the search engine could suggest an appointment time for you, based on your existing schedule.
Google, Weitz argues, is building a search engine to optimize indexed links, all the better to serve Google's advertising business. But that's Weitz's opinion, and it doesn't take into account the recent progress Google has made in the areas of predictive search with Google Now and in natural interfacing with its voice search.
Bing's team claims that Bing is focusing on a broader database full of action-oriented connections. If that's actually the case, then Bing could use such connections to make Internet-connected devices do things or to gather and transmit data that could then inform tasks carried out by other devices.
This could be an extremely useful foundation for an Internet of Things — one in which devices could make decisions and take actions based on data gleaned via Bing.
Steps Toward The Bing Of Everything
Many of these connection will presumably rely heavily on communication via natural-language interfaces, such as voice. Earlier this month, the Internet's talking heads concluded that Apple burned Google by selecting Bing as a backup search engine for Apple's mobile Siri app. But that might actually have been another clue to Microsoft's ambitions, since interface data and subsequent refinements from Siri would go a long way toward turning Bing into a more action-oriented search platform.
(That's assuming, of course, that Apple is willing to share such data, which in general it hasn't been.)
In case you're still not clear on what Microsoft is trying to achieve, Bing's blog announcement today wasn't exactly subtle: "Bing at Build 2013: Weaving an Intelligent Fabric." Intelligent fabric is an oft-used metaphor associated with the Internet of Things that refers to an active knowledge base connected devices can utilize to function better.
Microsoft seems to be the only major tech company that's looking to make moves in this space right now. Google and IBM seem to be warming up to the notion, as are hardware vendors like Intel and AMD. But in terms of visibility, Microsoft just planted a flag in the unknown frontier of the Internet of Things to proclaim that it is here.