Microsoft's Bing make-over: Back-end services take center stage

Bing as a developer platform is interesting. But it's the back-end services powering Bing that are a key part of Microsoft's mission to reposition itself as a devices and services company.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

As Microsoft has integrated Bing into more and more of its products over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that Microsoft execs are looking at Bing as more than just a second-place Web search engine.


Last week, the Softies finally said it officially: Bing is also a developer platform.

But the newest and most interesting piece here isn't the dev platform part. The real focal point is the back-end services powering the Bing development platform. These services are yet another key to Microsoft's effort to morph from software company to a devices and services one.

Microsoft has been encouraging developers to license its mapping, speech, translation and various other search-related application programming interfaces (APIs) for years with mixed success. Going forward, Microsoft's pitch to developers is that they can embed not just a set of static APIs and controls, but the continuously updated logic and data powering them.

Some of Microsoft's own product teams are already using these Bing API-plus-service packages. The Bing search experience in Windows 8.1, for example, is making use of a number of the Bing APIs and controls, plus the services powering these elements. And some of the recently announced Microsoft AppEx applications — like the Health & Fitness one that's been announced for Windows 8.1 — do, as well. The Bing search engine itself is powered by these services, too, company officials said.

"We've had [licensable] Bing Search, maps and other APIs for a while," explained Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Bing. "What we are doing now is showing how you can integrate things outside of search into your overall experience. We've pivoted Bing in this new way."

Another way of explaining this Bing make-over is that Microsoft is looking to give developers access to its own machine-learning assets — the logic, context and relevance that are designed to keep the controls and APIs fresh.

The key building blocks of this "intelligent fabric," as Microsoft execs have taken to referring to the back-end services, include its Bing "Satori" knowledge base, natural user interface (NUI) and geospatial/context awareness technologies.

Here's how Microsoft is describing this new "fabric," via a Bing blog post from last week:

"We've woven together Bing's massive worldwide indexing technology infrastructure with third-party applications and data combined with intelligent services derived from years of work from MS Research and the Bing teams to enable the next-generation of app experiences. For us, the future of search is not about more search boxes; it's about building a platform to enable applications and devices to empower people with knowledge and help them do more, not just search more."

Microsoft's new pitch around Bing is that developers are really building tasks and experiences rather than traditional software apps these days. Being able to create these kinds of experiences using always-updating components is Microsoft's new differentiator.

Bing maps are now more akin to an embeddable Bing mapping service, Bing Translator is more like an always up-to-date translation service, and the recently demonstrated Bing optical character recognition component is actually an OCR/scanning service.

Some of the new Bing services available now and/or soon to developers from the updated Bing Developer Center:

  • Bing Entity API: Provides a more unified way for developers to access data about people, places, and things (think knowledge graph on steroids)

  • OCR Control: Allows integration of Microsoft's cloud-based visual-recognition capabilities

  • Bing Translator Control: Allows apps to detect text and deliver automatic machine translation in various languages

  • Speech Control: Allows developers to include voice recognition (works on Windows 8.1 and above)

  • Bing Text-to-Speech API: Allows apps to "speak" to users (also for Windows 8.1 and above)

  • Bing Maps Software Development Kit (SDK): New version for Windows 8.1 provides mapping, routing, and traffic data for Windows Store apps

  • Bing Maps 3D SDK: Allows developers to build 3D mapping support into their apps (Windows 8.1 and beyond)

Microsoft officials didn't have much to share yet as to how the licensing model evolves and changes for developers who want to license the new Bing APIs and services. (A few of those on the list above are available in the Windows Azure Marketplace as "subscriptions," which can be used in conjunction with the API/SDK elements.)

If the price and terms are right, Microsoft could be on its way to finding a way to monetize Bing better than it has to date. What do you say, developers? Does Microsoft's newest Bing pitch interest you?

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