Why Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is so bullish on Bing

Microsoft's Bing search engine is one of the Microsoft products that Redmond's shareholders -- not to mention many Wall Streeters who watch Microsoft -- love to hate. But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is bullish on Bing. Here's why.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft's Bing search engine is one of the Microsoft products that Redmond's shareholders -- not to mention many Wall Streeters who watch Microsoft -- love to hate.

But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is bullish on Bing. During his opening remarks at the company's Imagine Cup competition on July 7, Ballmer told those in attendance, in no uncertain terms, why he's not giving up on Bing, in spite of the fact that its parent, the Online Services Division, continues to lose money, hand over fist. Ballmer's reasoning may surprise those who think it's just Google Search envy powering Ballmer's Bing obsession.

Calling Bing "amongst the things I'm most excited about at Microsoft," Ballmer had this to say about coming natural-language search role he expects Bing to help fill in the future:

"(T)here's a lot in Bing that I think represents the future of information technology.

"The real holy grail of what we all need to do is transform these machines so they understand you and what you mean. You ought to be able to say to your computer, verbally, type it, I don't care, 'Get me ready for my trip to the Imagine Cup.' That ought to mean something to these systems. It means nothing today.

"I'll give you another one that's even funnier. If you go to a search engine today and you say, 'Print my boarding pass on Southwest,' you'll get nothing back but chaos. The truth of the matter is, computers, search engines, nothing really understands verbs today. We only understand nouns. And yet, most of us as human beings want to command these systems to do something for us. And the core technology we're developing to understand and try to simulate the world of users and what they're interested in, and how they want to get it done is all being done in Bing."

The scenarios Ballmer is outlining -- computers that understand verbs -- require better speech understanding than is currently available to most users. But don't forget: Microsoft has a few different speech-processing technologies in the hopper. There's the Tellme speech technology that Microsoft acquired when it bought Tellme Networks in 2007. Tellme already allows Windows users to set up their PCs to respond to limited spoken commands and to dictate and edit text in a handful of languages.

But there's also the Kinect sensor. Microsoft already has shown off how the next version of the Xbox dashboard will allow users to say "Xbox Bing" to search using voice commands. Microsoft is preparing to release a commercial version of the Kinect software development kit (SDK) that will allow PC applications to be powered by Kinect. (A beta of the hobbyist version of that SDK is already out.)

The Bing team has been working with Microsoft Research to improve Bing's inherent natural-language-search capabilities, and earlier this year showed off some rudimentary results with Bing Shopping. In the U.S. only and using Bing Shopping only, users can do voice searches that are price-constrained ("Show me Sony cameras under $200"). So far there's been no word on when/how Microsoft is planning to extend this natural-language voice search in Bing.

Microsoft isn't the only company attempting to harness natural-language capabilities and use them in conjunction with bigger data sets. eWeek reported recently on IBM's plans to use its Watson technology to build an internal system that its sales people could use to answer questions. Watson makes use of advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation and reasoning, and machine learning technologies to answer questions.

Both Microsoft and IBM are racing to harness all the big data they're amassing. Microsoft sees Bing as the front end/user interface for getting at that data, while IBM seems to be focusing on vertically-focused interfaces that make use of its Deep Q&A engine inside Watson.

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