Bing Maps’ new Streetside feature.
Click to enlarge.
SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft previewed some new enhancements to its Bing search engine as part of its drive to break out of third place and become a serious contender to Google in search.
The software giant also played down — though it didn’t deny — talk of a controversial anti-Google content deal rumored to be in the works with media conglomerate News Corp.
Much of the demos here today at Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) San Francisco offices focused on improvements to Bing Maps. A dazzling demonstration of Bing’s mapping features, currently in beta, showed a smooth, speedy user experience that zoomed from a pedestrian-level view — dubbed Streetside — to a bird’s-eye view, and back.
Microsoft also announced an Apps Gallery for Bing Maps that includes applications that, among other things, integrates Twitter data, letting you see tweets relevant to nearby addresses on a local street-view map.
The software giant also employed several technologies for the new Bing Maps, including its Silverlight multimedia Web application, and Photosynth from its Microsoft Live Labs and the University of Washington. Photosynth lets Microsoft stitch photos together into a three-dimensional image, so the user can virtually cruise or fly through geographies seamlessly.
“We think the mixture of 3D modeling and photo-realism is really powerful,” said Blaise Aguera y Arcas, the Microsoft architect of Bing Maps.
Another application, Front Pages, shows local newspaper pages in the left-hand column of the screen depending on where you are on the map. Meanwhile, Local Lens searches for “hyper local” blogs written by authors in a particular neighborhood or nearby. The most recent blog content is highlighted in the left column and organized by your location a map, or you can click through to go to the blog site.
An alternative to Google
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s senior vice president of research and development, said Microsoft is pushing a more innovative visual alternative to the classic “search box” interface popularized by Google.
Microsoft is promoting the concept through an enhancement to results that it dubs Bing of Entities: People, Places and Things.
For example, a movie search might prompt a preview to appear among its top results, or a box of information as to where the movie is playing locally based on the user’s location. A search for “restaurants in New York” delivers a map of area eateries, along with their phone numbers, Web sites and links to directions.
The idea is to deliver more actionable information sooner, Nadella said. He added that usage research has indicated that Bing users make more than four queries on average for a single task — a number that’s growing.
However, by adding enhancements like Bing of Entities, the company is hoping to keep that number down.
“We’ve recognized the foundational fact that the search box doesn’t scale for all kinds of applications,” he said.
Is there a News Corp deal?
Bing’s new features weren’t the only talk during the day’s presentations.
Recent weeks have seen a surge in rumors that publishing giant News Corp. (Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, etc.) might pull content from Google’s search index and do a deal to feature its news outlets on Bing, instead.
However, Microsoft remained mum — mostly.
“I won’t speculate on speculation,” Nadella said. “The focus we have is not as much on non-Google content, it’s more around query intent and task completion … We’re really not as focused or obsessed about content exclusively for Bing.”
Nadella did note Bing has non-exclusive content deals with the Mayo Clinic and others, however.