Opinion: Google's wave drowns the bling in Microsoft's Bing


The browser battle renewed today as Google launched its game-changing successor to e-mail, Wave, while across town NineMSN demonstrated its new search engine, Bing.

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Both technologies seek to provide web users and businesses with better ways to access or make content. But although Bing adds neat functions - such as improved contextual search and real-time airline updates - it's value could easily by supplanted by the Big G's renewed focus on the browser and search. Last year, Google released more than 100 new features and is on track to a similar number this year.

The cynical might assume that one of the companies was trying to gazump the other, but in all likelihood, it was simple coincidence that two of the biggest web announcements occurred in a few hours of each other.

Microsoft's hand may have been moved by the launch of Wolfram|Alpha last week, a smart calculator that got mixed reviews but which shows much promise in connecting people to knowledge.

In these opening salvos the first round clearly goes to Wave, its name a homage to the science fiction of Joss Whedon's Firefly oeuvre (Google's 50 Sydney developers are big fans of the Hollywood wunderkind). A "wave" in the "Whedonverse" was an electronic communication; a Google developer described Wave as "e-mail on crack".

Lars and Jens Rasmussen - The two Danish-Australian brothers behind the collaborative technology that blurs the lines between email, wiki, SMS and Twitter - liked the name but it was Jens who, Google sources said, spent five hours to convince his brother to embark on project Walkabout, which name was later changed to Wave.

Wave's team drew down heavily on the same Australian pioneers who created Google Maps. It was incepted as a small, three-person startup that, Lars said, "didn't need to worry about payroll", in late 2006 and grew to five and then twenty in 2007 before reaching about 50.

After today's Google developer conference at the Moscone Centre in San Francisco, that number swelled to about 4000. And when the developer day comes Down Under on June 19 and then spreads out to Japan and Europe, the number of minds working to propel it on to blogs, e-commerce sites and everywhere a browser was welcome will lift the intellectual horsepower still further.

Wave integrates many of the features of disparate systems in common use today, such as e-mail, the web, wikis and instant messaging systems from SMS to Twitter. The search titan's application programming interfaces would make it easier for third-parties to customise web applications for their needs.

Against this backdrop of a tectonic shift in communication was Microsoft's Bing, launched under the NineMSN banner in Australia.

Bing was like Google with bling. It had many commendable refinements to the search process that NineMSN product director Alex Parsons said trim the average search time for items online down from 30 minutes and improved search success rates from 25 percent. But there was nothing in the demonstration that could not be implemented or improved by Google - even before Bing's official launch on June 3.

Parsons said Microsoft has "single-digit" market share of browser searches and was embarking on a long-term plan to whittle away at that dominance by 2 to 3 percent a year. In that, it learned a lot from open source technologies such as Mozilla browser and Apache web server. But search was a game of scale by Parsons' admission and it was unlikely that ad buyers would be so patient.

On the plus side for Microsoft, Parsons said search engine optimisers - those who contrive to lift websites to the top of rankings - won't have to do much to fit into the Bing world view. But a series of boot camps to outline Bing's advantages was in the pipeline.

But now Microsoft, which could have felt some comfort that the successor to its woeful Live Search was some competition to a Google - whose market share in search many believe has become to big for the web's good, has to contend with a full-frontal assault on its collaborative software, Sharepoint.

Google said the big advantages were the many ways people used waves. Lars said some early users were hooked on the ease with which they shared photos and for others it was the collaboration. Some enjoyed the ease with which their work flowed around with waves. Still others, down the track, would take the programming interfaces to build into their sites and intranets, much as what happened with Google Maps.

Waves weren't restricted to what you see in the browser when you're online. Go offline and the wave data stayed with you, whether that's an email you were working on, a tweet (yes, there are plans for Twitter extensions) or even a file, dragged on to the browser to share later.

Although Lars admitted there was still work to do on the offline experience saving work in progress, ultimately it would mean a user could save all their work in the browser and dump it on the intertubes when they go back online.

And while waves worked best on standards-compliant, Webkit browsers such as Safari and Mozilla and, naturally, Google's Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer 7 are not too far away. The team wanted all users of modern browsers to be able to share their waves, they said.

Lars said that eventually, even those who weren't using waves will benefit, by sending emails (which could be translated between languages in real time) to a wave user, who then responded in a wave that was turned back into an e-mail. The same held true for instant messages and tweets, he said. It was a single place to manage all communication and collaboration.

The challenge Google and Microsoft will face is getting people to change their rusted-on habits. In some ways, this will be more difficult for Google, because a shift from discrete applications to just one to handle all communications - real-time messaging and asynchronous such as e-mail - is a lot to swallow.

For Microsoft, the task at hand is to stop people from exercising muscle memory when they type google.com into their search pane (or click on the drop down search window in many browsers). And it is unclear whether Bing offers enough of a step up to encourage that transition, despite the fact that it would get some leverage from its association with Australia's most popular website.

Ultimately, it will be up to users and developers to decide the merits of each technology and our collective view of the web.

Will Bing and Wave change your online habits? What are the merits you see in each? Tell us your thoughts and how you plan to use them in our forums below.

At a glance:







What is it?

Search (decision) engine

"E-mail on crack"

Where is it?







An iterative take on the search engine, recently re-imagined as a "decision engine". Some incremental improvements but unlikely to convince many hard-wired into the Googleverse to switch sides. Too little, too late to save Redmond's search ambitions. Little threat to Google or Yahoo! Or the new Wolfram|Alpha.

Changes the game about what it means to communicate and collaborate online. Blurs the lines between e-mail, wiki, instant message and presence. Should also work quite well over mobile. But such a fundamental change to how people work with each other will take some time to digest. A direct threat to Microsoft's Sharepoint, Atlassian and open source wiki tools.

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