Apparently no one is more nostalgic than Microsoft for the 1990s, a time where Windows ran on about 90% of PCs, the iPhone was a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye, and your favorite-annoying virtual assistant was Clippy.
Microsoft was computing. As Google Chrome is now, its browser Internet Explorer was the primary gateway to the web. Windows is how most millennials learned to use computers. Bill Gates was at one point the richest and youngest billionaire.
But antitrust action by the US government; the arrival of Google; and Microsoft’s failure to recognize the importance of smartphones under ex-CEO Steve Ballmer knocked the brand out of consumer consciousness.
To be clear, Microsoft isn’t doing badly. Under current CEO Satya Nadella, it has re-engineered itself as a major enterprise and gaming player with a market capitalization of almost $2 trillion. It mints money from its cloud business Azure and Office. It owns one of the most popular gaming ecosystems in Xbox.
But its consumer software is unloved to the point its own execs joke about it.
Against all odds, Bing might be about to change all that.
Microsoft has cuddled up with the artificial intelligence startup OpenAI, whose public-facing chatbot ChatGPT has exploded as users discover it can write poetry, essays, job applications, and code. Microsoft has integrated some OpenAI deep-learning technology into Bing, its ailing competitor to Google, so that the search engine can answer questions in a more nuanced way.
Rather than forcing users to ask questions in search-y language such as “biriyani recipe”, the new Bing will in theory let you ask questions like “I need to throw a dinner party for 6 people who are vegetarian. Can you suggest a 3-course menu with a chocolate dessert?”
And rather than just returning a list of results, Bing will present the information in a more useful way.
Very futuristic and cool!
What is less futuristic is Microsoft’s maneuvering to juice its own market share as much as possible.
The new Bing is only available if you jump through some or all of the following hoops: a) sign up to a waitlist, preferably via the Edge web browser (owned by Microsoft) b) sign in with an Outlook email account (owned by Microsoft) c) log in via GitHub (owned by Microsoft) and/or d) “set Microsoft defaults” on your device, which might vary from picking Bing as your default search engine to just downloading the Bing app.
At present, Bing’s share of the search market is a mere 3%, according to data firm Stat Counter. Google dominates with more than 90%.
This isn’t illegal — unlike say, in some people’s opinion, forcing PC makers to bundle your proprietary web browser in with your proprietary operating system — but it is cheeky. By the time Microsoft’s next financial results come around, the company may have notched that percentage share up a notch or two.
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, understands the importance of the moment.
“Ultimately, any company only stays relevant if you can reinvent yourself,” he told Bloomberg’s Dina Bass. “You have to rebuild yourself all the time, and Google, I’m sure will be thinking their thoughts on what it takes for them to be relevant.
“It feels more like the early ’90s at Microsoft, where every day I want us to be able to introduce new categories or redefine categories.”