Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco for the first time in three years to talk Bing vs. Google search, social media, mobile and more with John Battelle.
Battelle pried a few revelations out of Ballmer, perhaps the most surprising being that users should choose Bing because it’s pretty much the same as Google search.
Recalling that conversation from his last appearance at the event, Battelle asked Ballmer how Bing, which he’d referred to then as “his child,” is doing.
“We’re getting stronger every day,” he proclaimed. Since that last visit, they’ve more than doubled their U.S. search market share from 7 to 15 percent and moved into the position of number two player, behind Google, thanks in large part to the Microsoft-Yahoo Search Alliance.
You Should Use Bing Because You’ll Like Us Better… Or Not
Oddly, Ballmer threw down a challenge to users that was supposed to be a Bing endorsement:
“Take any search you want and try it out on Bing, and try it out on Google… 70 percent of the time, you probably won’t care, 15 percent of the time you’ll probably like us better, and 15 percent of the time you’ll like the other guy better.”
Okaaaaay. Last year, Ballmer claimed Bing was advanced in many ways and Google was just trying to catch up to their innovations. The two web giants have accused each other of copycatting on countless occasions and even exchanged barbs through search results, most recently when Microsoft implied that Google are a bunch of “evil whiners.”
Now, it seems, people should use Bing because the two competitors’ search results are pretty much on par. It wasn’t an inspiring endorsement by the company CEO. He does point out that results are just one component of the user experience and points to user interface, innovation and “the things we’ve done to make it more than just ten blue links” to draw users to Bing.
The foundation has been laid for bigger and better things with Bing’s boosted relevance, he said. Investors are looking to Bing to soon staunch the bleeding and become profitable; the online services division has lost about $9 billion since 2007.
Ballmer on Search vs. Social: Neither is a Substitute for the Other
When asked whether search holds the same weight as it did three years ago, considering the prevalence of social media, Ballmer explained how Bing views the two information sources as complementary rather than competitive.
“What better use of all the world’s data is there than trying to put it together as an engine?” he asked. “There are also other ways people find things…” he went on, “That stuff is also very important. But neither is really a substitute for the other.”
In July, Microsoft “accidentally” published a landing page for what appeared to be a social search site called Tulalip. Yet, when asked whether Microsoft has “decided to punt” on the social space, or if they would surprise us at some point, Ballmer pointed to Xbox Live, with its 50 million users, and Skype as highly social initiatives.
“I think there’s a variety of different things that all fall under this social banner, and we’ve picked our play,” he said. “We’re adding what I would call connectivity to people into our core products.”
Microsoft’s approach is about making it easier for people to connect on different platforms, as they don’t believe there is going to be one solution that outdoes all others.
Microsoft Lucky They Didn’t Buy Yahoo, But They’re “All In, Baby” on the Cloud
While acknowledging the value of their alliance, Ballmer noted they Microsoft had been “lucky” their bid to buy Yahoo for $44 billion wasn’t accepted just before the market crashed in 2008. As for buying Yahoo now, he said, “You can ask me that question any week and get the same answer.”
When it comes to apps in the cloud, Ballmer says Microsoft is “Winning!” over Google 98 percent of the time.
“We’ve got a highly functional product that’s highly available, with very good overall characteristics, particularly for a business or professional customer,” Ballmer said.
He feels that users are more comfortable with apps in the cloud than platforms. While he concedes that Amazon got a jump in the space, “the strength of our virtualization and the private cloud offer and public cloud offer makes us unique against Amazon or VMWare or others we would compete with in that area.”
Microsoft Propelling Manufacturers for Windows 8 Device Development
On Windows 8, Ballmer said, “It supports a next generation of things people will want to do that don’t involve fine grain control through mice and keyboards, yet it doesn’t abandon any of the great things that have come before.” He calls this a no-compromise experience for users.
Microsoft wants to ensure a great range of Windows 8 devices, from smartphones and tablets to desktops, notebooks, and convertibles. Ballmer said 350 million Windows devices will be sold this year.
Despite repeated attempts by Battelle to get Ballmer to commit to Microsoft building their own devices, Ballmer repeatedly answered, “We are focused on enabling hardware innovation broadly through our industry.” Nokia will release new Windows 8 devices next week.
On how new Windows 8 phones will differ from Apple’s iPhone, Ballmer says there won’t be “seas of icons,” that users will find their information and that of friends front and center. He said there are “certainly some nice things Apple’s done with Siri, but some of the same things, we’ve been doing for a year and we’re already on our next generation.”