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

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.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

"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."

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