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

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.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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