Talking tech since 2003

This morning’s rumors on Stephen Elop’s potential plans for Microsoft—namely that he’d consider selling Xbox and killing Bing—got us thinking. Our own Jeff Weisbein has already explained why he thinks Microsoft should sell Xbox while the brand is at its most valuable—and while I don’t think he’s wrong, I’m not totally convinced of that either.

As for the question of whether Microsoft should kill Bing, that seems much simpler: yes, of course they should. But, as ever, rarely is anything as simple as it seems.

In a world where “web-search” has literally become synonymous with “Google,” Bing is pretty extraneous. I tend to give Microsoft flak for following instead of innovating—initiatives like the Surface, the Zune, and Bing itself come to mind—but I’d be remiss by ignoring the various ways that Google has copied others and been rewarded. Google Docs and Chrome are both attempts on Google’s part to horn in on Microsoft’s turf with Word and Internet Explorer. But the difference here is that Google managed to create applications that offer legitimate, tangible benefits to users: connectivity, ease of sharing, and no monetary cost.

But back to Bing. It’s clearly Microsoft’s try at striking back at Google, but there’s no question that it’s been a failure. Back in 2011, CNN reported that Microsoft had lost $5.5 billion on Bing since launching it two years earlier. The fact that it’s actually been out since 2009 boggles my mind—because I don’t use it, and no one I know uses it, and no one wants to use it. Because, simply put, Bing is trying to solve problems with Google that no one has. No one except Microsoft, that is, and that’s that Google’s money isn’t Microsoft’s.

So, Microsoft should stop bothering with search, right? If it’s a money loser that no one wants, what’s it good for? The answer is actually kind of surprising: Bing is actually good for consumers just by virtue of its existence. Google is the undisputed king of search, but having Bing nipping at its heels keeps the company on its toes. Bing is an alternative, and as we’ve heard so many times, competition is good for business.

Having Bing there to keep Google in check means that consumers will have a choice, and that Google’s users keep using it because it’s the best choice—not because it’s the only choice. It’s ironic that Microsoft’s actions would be keeping another company from essentially having a monopoly considering its own struggles in that regard back in 2001.

So what’s the answer? Having Bing around is good for consumers…who don’t use it. From a business standpoint, it probably makes more sense for the company to pull the plug. But a better strategy would be for Microsoft to find a way to not simply chase Google, but to exceed it. It’s already taking those steps by integrating Bing searches into Windows’ guts. Maybe as Windows 8 gains more adoption across the PC landscape, the search engine will start to find adherents who are happy with what it does for them.

But until Microsoft can actually truly innovate instead of try to replicate, we’ll keep debating whether we ever want to Bing instead of Google.

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