Microsoft's latest search-share attack plan: Focus on mobile apps

Microsoft's latest search-share attack plan: Focus on mobile apps

Summary: There's more than one way to chip away at Google's search share, according to Microsoft. Mobile apps offer another avenue, says head of Redmond's AppEx team.


"Applications, rather than the browser, are now the predominant windows to the world's information."

Microsoft's Brian MacDonald

That's a claim in a recent Microsoft Online Services Division job post. But it's also the thinking of some inside the Microsoft Bing search team.

As I have blogged previously, Microsoft's AppEx (Application Experiences) team of a couple hundred developers is the unit that built a handful of applications that have shipped as part of Windows 8 and Windows RT.

But how and why did it fall to the Bing team to create these programs?

"A lot of things you would typically go to a search engine for -- now there's an app for that," quipped Brian MacDonald, the Corporate Vice President in charge of the Bing Application Experiences team.

In other words, instead of searching from a Web-based search page for "MSFT stock price," mobile users increasingly are employing a dedicated finance app on their page to track this kind of information.

"Users don't wake up and say, I want to map some keywords to some URLs. We wanted to cover a number of intents in search. That was the gist of our idea" with AppEx, said MacDonald.

The Bing team created the Bing iPad app in April 2011. That app included weather, news, traffic, stocks, movie listings and other modules.

"We thought instead of creating one monolithic experience, why not do a suite of apps," MacDonald recalls.

At the time, MacDonald was co-managing Bing engineering with Harry Shum. The pair pitched the idea to CEO Steve Ballmer and the AppEx team was born.("We were very happy with the level of funding Steve gave us," said MacDonald.)

MacDonald admits that the AppEx team were not initially big fans of the HTML/JavaScript development approach. But the team persisted, as it wanted to be "the role model for the preferred platform." MacDonald said the choice to go HTML/JavaScript wasn't forced on AppEx by Windows, and that "the Windows team would have supported us either way we went."


So far, the AppEx team has built news, travel, sports, weather, finance and maps applications for Windows 8 and Windows RT. (Maps ownership has gone back to the Maps team since launch.) Windows Mail was built by the Windows team, however, as Windows was charged with building certain "productivity" apps.

"We're going to do a few things beyond these apps, but we have nothing to announce right now," said MacDonald.

MacDonald did talk general trends during a recent phone interview we had, however, saying we should expect to see "more convergence of apps and browser pages," with Web sites that are currently not downloadable apps being converted to that form relatively easily.

He also noted there is a very tangible connection between Microsoft's focus on big data and machine learning and what the AppEx team is doing. Features like the Panoramas available in the Windows 8/Windows RT travel app allow for arm-chair exploring. But they also can scroll through a related set of destinations, generated from the vast amount of travel/location data and information maintained by Bing Travel.

"This is an example of how we are a 'Bing app,' MacDonald said.

Another connection between the larger Online Services Division (which is also the home of Microsoft Advertising) and the AppEx team is on the ad front. Some have complained vociferously about the inclusion of ads in the free, built-in Bing apps for Windows 8 and Windows RT. MacDonald said Microsoft could have paid outright its partners, like the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Fox Business and others, for their content. But that isn't what they wanted.

"Ad-supported is a super-important model for third parties," he said. "Our marquee content partners wanted us to share back the revenue with them. They care more about that than us buying their content."

The new-found focus on apps doesn't mean Microsoft or Bing is abandonning the quest for more Web-search share, however.

"We are still competing with Google in search head-on," MacDonald said. "But there are other methods, like apps, that we also can use."

Topics: Apps, Google, Microsoft, Mobile OS, Software Development


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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  • Good strategy...

    It seems like they really do have a good plan for staying competitive and building their services up. I certainly like what they've done with the Windows 8 apps... I wouldn't mind seeing some/all of them come to Windows Phone 8 too for use on-the-go.

    It's also nice to finally have an explanation for the ads in the W8 apps. Suddenly I feel less upset about them.
    • Wow

      Love my job, since I've been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I'm making it online(Click on menu Home)
  • interesting approach

    Great concepts don't always make great products but this sounds like a great concept. If they can turn the concept into a suite of popular apps, it will be a huge plus for MS.

    Win 8 is looking like another Vista. Hopefully, they can have this ready for Windows 9
  • BING Usage

    I use BING all the time, but there are two areas it needs to improve on. 1) Shopping is very bad; not many sellers and not enough functionality (see for better functionality).

    2) Often I have to click on the "More" option to get to the type of search I want, that should not be. There should be away that I don't have to wait for another full page refresh to get the search type I want.

    3) No way to search technical support web sites only for help on a computer issue; just web search is available which can include a lot of "noise" in the search results.

    Those issues aside BING is a great search engine!
  • Attack?!!

    Worked for this team a while ago. Gave this idea on apps a couple of years ago and none in the org ever listened to me. Now after they have missed the bandwagon the VP is coming to the press and is proudly announcing that 'apps is the future'... Shows how stagnated the management @Msft has become. It takes them five f*ing years to figure out that the world has moved... No one in the mgmt listens to their reports, they are all the time concerned about their networking and playing golf.

    Had the great honor to work in McD's org. There is no great imaginative work being done in that org and is as routine as it can get anywhere...
  • ¿where is a Media Centre?

    Windows 8 has added A LOT of new features and applications I love, and a few were by Bing (most were Windows Live), but I still miss Windows Media Centre and integration with T.V. D.V.R. as part of Windows Mediaroom.
    Agosto Nuñez