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Bing Maps Spawn the 'Decade of the Interface?'

Microsoft got some well-deserved praise for the flashy new interface features it's bringing to its Bing search engine. At an event earlier this week, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) showed off a much more visual interface for Bing Maps that lets users pilot their way online to find point of interest and other useful content -- including relevant links to Twitter.

But research firm IDC thinks the improved UI is just the beginning of what it calls "The Decade of the User Interface." Specifically, IDC believes the kind of immersive experience offered by Bing Maps portends key changes to watch for on the Web and software in general as user interfaces evolve.

"The Web today views documents and queries as disconnected objects," said IDC search analyst Sue Feldman, in a commentary released today. "Bing Maps takes a leap forward, piecing together sequences of queries to understand common tasks, and finding relationships among data from disparate sources."

This understanding lets Bing Maps take a best guess at providing the most relevant information in results to the user. Feldman ticked off several examples, such as where is the nearest doctor is, what the hours are for the drug stores nearest you, where to get an absentee ballot, or even where to find a really good pizza.

Feldman notes that many keyword searches fail because people don't use the same terms that a document might.

"But if the path to commonly-requested information is known, why not return the information without requiring a query?" she asks. "The metaphor of the map means that any information tied to the real world can be displayed on it: traffic, local tweets, locations of businesses, events. Finding each of these would be a single query. Or, you could do as Bing Maps does, and serve it all up to let the user select what's of interest."

Bing is not the first Web service to leverage mashups. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), for one, started doing this years ago, letting users tie data sources to its Google Maps. Bing lets you search within the context of a location. Feldman gives the example of looking for a local concert and how you can query Bing Maps and get back a list of local concerts, related suggestions and see the location of the events on a map.

"Layering data on top of a map, which is what Bing Maps does, suggests things to look for I may never have considered. It presents possibilities," said Feldman.

And while the visual aspects of Bing Maps are more pleasing than the standard ten blue links of search results, Feldman is more impressed that it all serves a practical purpose. She gives this example:

"Type in the name of a town, and get first a map showing locations of major types of businesses. Click on 'more details' to get an overview of the history, the current weather, education, landmarks, etc. with links to more information on each."

Feldman also noted that Bing lets you drill down for details without losing the context of the map, by displaying different types of information with separate icons (coffee shops, dental care, doctors, restaurants, education, grocery stores, etc.) that invite exploration.

What Microsoft still needs to do and watch out for Google

Feldman noted that given the central role location plays in Bing Maps, Microsoft needs to speed up its plans to provide a mobile experience that enables GPS-enabled smart phone users to enjoy the same full range of features. "While mobile releases are on Microsoft's product roadmap, they should be front and center," and include Android and iPhone versions for the non-Microsoft world (the clear majority in this case)," she said.

At the event Microsoft did say it planned to release Bing features for both Android and the iPhone and one demo was done on the iPhone.

From a big picture industry perspective, Feldman said Bing Maps Streetside experience and the addition of community-generated photo "synths" will become an expected feature for geo-interfaces going forward.

"In summary, while many of the features in this system have been seen before, Bing Maps does the best job we have seen of connecting them all in a single, intuitive site that is both useful and a pleasure to explore," said Feldman.

Google will undoubtedly be questioned about Bing Maps on Monday when it's scheduled to show several search-related advances of its own publicly for the first time at a media event. The search giant tweaked the design of its home page earlier this week.