Is the Microsoft chief executive, Steve Ballmer, a shameless fan of the saccharine US comedy Friends, or did his microwave go off just at the right time?
The true inspiration behind the name for Microsoft's new search engine (some reports say it was the Friends character Chandler Bing) is debatable. But, without doubt, the name and the product will have to resonate very deeply with the world's online population before it can sneak up on Microsoft's nemesis, Google.
Many attempts at wresting Google's unyielding grip on the search market have ended in dispiriting defeat. Notable in this roll-call of flops was Yahoo!'s Alta Vista, which launched in 1995, and built a strong following only to be eventually skewered by the unstoppable Google.
The world's biggest search engine has a whopping 84 per cent market share of UK search queries, according to Nielsen's figures for April this year.
The next biggest player in search, Yahoo! Search, has just 5 per cent. Microsoft is stuck in third place with a measly 4 per cent share. Other search minnows include Ask.com (2 per cent).
Microsoft will be banking on Bing generating some much-needed search dollars. The company's online advertising revenues took a nosedive in April this year, seeing a 14.5 per cent decline year on year for the third quarter of 2009.
Meanwhile, internet advertising spend is catching up with TV, accounting for 19.5 per cent of the total UK advertising market in 2008 (up from 15.5 per cent in 2007). Search dominates the online ad market, amounting to almost 60 per cent of online adspend (of which, of course, the majority goes through Google).
While Bing, formerly known as Live Search, has a major challenge on its hands in terms of chipping into the market, it has been generally well received as a product.
Experts have praised its uncluttered design, search capability and general usability. But it remains to be seen whether Microsoft, after coming into the search market with a Bing, will be going out with a whimper.
1. Microsoft's search offering has had more reinventions than Madonna. The company's first foray into search was in 1998 with MSN Search. But it didn't quite live up to the hopes of becoming a Google adversary and was reworked and repackaged as Windows Live Search in 2006. This was replaced by Live Search in 2007, but still failed to put a dent in Google's dominance. So it was back to the drawing board this year and an upgrade to Live Search was devised and codenamed Kumo (meaning "cloud" or "spider" in Japanese) by Microsoft employees while they tested it internally. But just before the launch last month, the name was switched to Bing.
2. Microsoft rather grandly describes Bing as a "decision engine", designed to cut through the clutter of search and understand what users are looking for on the internet. Still in the Beta stage in the UK, the site's homepage (www.bing.com) is, like Google's, simplicity itself, featuring a single empty box. But for the background, Microsoft has gone screensaver mad with a different chocolate-box image of a pretty landscape decorating the page every day.
3. New features that Microsoft hopes will appeal to users are "guided search", which categorises searches and aims to get information to users as quickly as possible. News and maps are also included, as well as a cashback scheme, whereby users get a small dividend each time they buy something through the site.
4. The company has thrown $100 million into a multiplatform campaign for Bing, created by JWT, and doesn't baulk at making ambitious claims for its new product. The ad, which features a barrage of images of financial mayhem, suggests that we were all too distracted by search overload (read Google) to observe the looming financial crisis. Step forward Microsoft and its decision-enabling search engine to save the day.
5. Google, probably not ecstatic about the launch of Bing, nor for that matter about having the woes of the world's media sector laid at its door, will no doubt be keeping an eye on Microsoft's progress. While its empire is not under threat yet, it has been quietly battling back by making tweaks to its search offering - it launched its new search tool Google Squared in the UK last month.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Google is making a lot of money out of its strong status in the market, and advertisers will certainly welcome some much-needed competition. They will want Bing to succeed, but as Andrew Walmsley, the founder of the digital agency i-level, says: "Supporting the underdogs and getting into bed with them are two different things."
- Bing is regarded as a vast improvement on Live Search and has some good features, but it has a long way to go to rival Google. Many advertisers don't even consider Microsoft's search offering because they can cover 90 per cent of the market using Google and Yahoo!.
- Google, with its massive share, probably won't be too worried by the launch of Bing. However, it will certainly be taking notes on the good ideas Microsoft comes up with and ignoring the bad ones.
- Yahoo! has more to be concerned about, as Microsoft is more likely to steal some of its portion of the search market. A successful new search offering will also give Microsoft more leverage in its negotiations to acquire Yahoo!.
- Small players such as Ask.com, which relaunched in April bringing back Jeeves, its all-knowing butler, will have more of a fight to cling on to the search crumbs left behind by Google.