Microsoft envisions a not-so-distant future where apps are 'Bingified'

Microsoft envisions a not-so-distant future where apps are 'Bingified'

Summary: It's not just science fiction. Microsoft is working to make calendar, e-mail and other 'super' apps smarter by embedding entity information directly into them.


Microsoft execs made it official earlier this year: Bing is more than a Web search engine. It's also a dev platform.


Fulling grasping what this means and understanding how Bing will influence the future of products at Microsoft isn't all that intuitive. I think this is one reason why some outsiders think it would be prudent and easy for Microsoft to simply sell off its search business as a way to boost the Microsoft stock price.

Last week, I had an "aha!" moment about how the Redmondians are thinking about the future influence of Bing thanks to Distinguished Technical Engineer James Whittaker, who spoke at the Business Insider Ignition conference in New York City.

Whittaker -- a Softie who joined Google, returned to Redmond and lived to tell about it -- is one of a handful of developers working on a new evangelism team at the company. Prior to joining the new deep-tech evangelism team, Whittaker's most recent gig at Microsoft was development manager for the Microsoft knowledge platform as part of the Bing team. 

In 20 minutes, Whittaker explained something I've been struggling to fully appreciate -- the significance of entity relationships and machine learning -- without ever using either of those terms.

"We have knowledge from decades of searching," Whittaker told attendees. Yet we still live in a world where "certain things are the task of a browser or the task of a search engine."

"Why are apps a noun?" Whittaker asked the crowd. "Why are apps something we have to possess?"

Instead, why don't apps understand context? Why don't apps and the Web work together to help users perform research?

Whittaker wasn't referring to Microsoft's integration of Bing "smart search" into Windows 8.1. He was talking about the next step beyond that: The Bingification of apps.

At the Ignition confab, Whittaker showed off a version of enterprise Outlook which included add-ins developed by himself and a few interns that would allow users to see entity information right inside their e-mail. The same way that Microsoft Office apps currently alert users with a squiggly line to a potentitally misspelled word, a Bing-enriched mail app could show users information about entities embedded in their e-mail messages -- things like bands, venues, nearby restaurants and more.

Update (December 16): The original blog post said the interns who worked on this technology were all from MIT. It turns out they actually went to a variety of schools and were part of the Microsoft Foundry program. The name of this particular technology with which they assisted is "SpotMail," I hear.

Entity cards aren't a new concept. Microsoft has been serving them up as part of Bing Web search since 2009. But the new twist here is having apps, not a browser or search engine, be the locale for this embedded entity information. In Whittaker's example, information on frequently searched-for terms would pop up inside an e-mail message (assuming prior user approval, so as to avoid any possible accusations of Microsoft Scroogling its customers). 

Whittaker took it a step further. What if apps were "super-apps" where they could potentially discern user intent? Why not allow an app to surface a "spot market" -- a kind of temporary, user-specific auction where buyers and sellers could negotiate?

"I need a vacation" -- however that is conveyed to a particular device -- could trigger a number of related activities in this kind of Bing-enhanced world. A user's calendar could serve as the "super-app," which would search for open weeks, find flights, import flight data into calendars and allow users to purchase flights with a single click. All of this could happen without users having to juggle multiple apps and/or use dedicated search engines.

This may sound like science fiction, but these kinds of scenarios aren't as far from reality as many may think, Whittaker said.

Devices with sensors are proliferating, so that information can be gleaned from not just PCs and phones, but also wearables on our clothes and faces. Context already is device-detectable, Whittaker said.

"We are hunters and gatherers," Whittaker said.  "We hunt functionality from an app and gather information from the Web." 

But there's no reason Webs and apps can't and won't meet, and soon, Whittaker concluded.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Big Data, Microsoft


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Sounds like Mr. Whittaker wants to be the Ray Kurzweil of Redmond.

    I'm really (I mean REALLY) not fond of apps that try to read your mind. But I have to give Mr. Whittaker +1 for pegging Google for what it really is---an advertising company.
    • "an advertising company."

      making better software than some one software giant from Redmond, WA. What an irony...
      • Sorry, but Google does not make "better" software

        in any sense of the word.
        • I agree

          Google makes very unattractive primitive stuff when it comes to calendar, mail and office apps. Yes, they work but I don't see them winning over a lot of people. But I thought Bing was a question mark if it would even be around after a new CEO comes onboard? This seems counter productive and works against Microsoft Office 365.
          • Not in my view

            I would say Google Calendar is superb, mail is good at screening spam out, and docs work well and are quicker to load. I do like and the Office web apps are OK. Calendar by Microsoft needs a little advancement.
          • @mytake4this

            It is like comparing a Cheverolet Spark with a Camero, yes, both have 4 wheels and get from A to B, but the Spark is very limited, has a tiny little engine, is cramped and doesn't have the accessories that the Camero has.

            As a power user from MS Office, I find Google Docs (and very limiting and lacking in features. Docs is coming along, but it is still a long way behind, in terms of compatibility and features.
          • HAHAHAHAHA Google actively

            adds spam to Gmail inboxes and google search results. You just lost all credibility.
            Johnny Vegas
          • Bing needs to be pursued, but in MS' own way

            There are a couple of issues I have with Bing search on Windows 8.1. This article touches on the point that Bing should shift its emphasis to powering apps, above merely actinge like a search engine the way it always has.

            When search is invoked on the desktop in Win 8.1, this should invoke a Win32 app which allows users to create search projects, where they can document web page links, web page saves, as well as notes. Search integration into Windows needs to bring increasingly greater value to users, not merely marginal improvements. People need to say, that they prefer going to Windows 8.1 Bing search over the browser, because it is more productive and valuable over using straight browser searches.

            As far as Bing search within the Metro environment is concerned, I believe there should be an option to have the search results page / app take up half or only a portion of the screen, instead of taking up the whole screen all the time. Taking up the whole screen is often times not conducive to doing productivity related activities. Also what would be great, is when you click on an item of iterest in the search results, the associated Windows Store app opens the item within the search app, leading to a seamless user experience, as users go back and forth chosing search result items, and exploring them in their associated apps. Also clicking on links to web sites belonging to MS, should result in a non-browser user experience, leading to a more premium feel.

            Bing needs to be weaved into MS' OS and apps in myriad ways. Right clicking on elements (e.g. icons, buttons, menu items) in Windows should result in a Bing info option of the item, which opens up a Bing powered search app, where users can click on search results and explore them within the search app, rather than be thrown off jarringly into independently operating apps. As far as Bing integration into apps, in addition to doing the above, MS could offer a Bing subscription to users of Office 365, by allowing users to incorpoate live maps, news articles, interactive elements (e.g. 3D models), and other private assets by IP owners, into living documents which are viewed on tablets.

            Many people say MS should move to the cloud. I say MS should bring the cloud to its strong assets (Windows, Office, & other Windows apps) to strengthen them, and give them ever greater relevance. A company should be vigilant against others lulling it away from its strengths. MS' strengths lie within Windows and its apps, and it is from this vantage point it should take on its competitors - not leave its base of strength to try and ape what it competitors are doing, making the company vulnerable.
            P. Douglas
        • Android?

          Have you heard of it? An operating system, which was able to incorporate what Microsoft never got enough wits to come up with. Sandboxing apps, transparent permissions and much smaller OS code footprint. To mention just a few. Google also makes a better _more_portable_ web browser...
          • Did you just use Android...

            as an example of good software? You sir, are hilarious!!!
          • wheн one compares

            Аndroid to Microsoft Windows, the one that bears a derogatory name "Маздай" in Russia and former Soviet Union, originating from the English "Must Die"....
          • oops

            my cyrillic-translit input method didn't get switched back there :)
          • You must not read much. Microsoft does

            sandboxing. And windows is smaller than android. That's why WP so outperforms android on low end hardware. And IE is more html5 and CSS3 compliant, more secure, and far faster than googles android browser and their desktop chrome browser. You need to get out of the android fanboi world once in a while and get with the current facts
            Johnny Vegas
        • Is it worse?

          Well I don't know if it's always better, but their software supporting their cloud services (search included) seem pretty good.
          Chrome wins most of comparision tests, android dominates smartphones with 80% of the market, ...

          They are for sure doing something right.

          Microsoft also creates great products, but mocking others with careless words can be a tricky thing to do.
          • What is google doing right?

            Giving their stuff away for free. It's easy to grab market share when your stuff doesn't appear to cost anything. The general populace has no idea that google makes almost all of their money through targeted advertising.
          • For free?!

            They post huge profits quarter after quarter.
            There is not just one way of getting money.
          • man.

            selling copies via cd's and dvd's or licenses, that involves selling the code to be hidden away. That is their business model, Why do you think it represents a wholesome and a better one? This way code remains closed, no way to improve, modify and redistribute. Stagnant stuff and is quite rotten now... Smells of Microsoft and other proprietary cra@p...
          • Amazingly enough

            Most people who buy Android phones will never look at the source code ever.

            That's if they get to see their flavor's code.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • The difference is that they CAN look if they choose.

            MS makes it such that you CAN'T look, even if you wanted to.

            Its the difference between freedom and slavery...
          • What?

            Using hyperbole won't help you. Slavery? Really?
            Michael Alan Goff