Microsoft madness: Bing buoyant amid Browser brouhaha

It's a strange world: Microsoft has, in the space of a day, been accused of being up to its old tricks in closed-off anti competitiveness, and praised for its openness and flexibility. On the one hand, Mozilla and Google are up in arms about their browsers not having the same flexibility as Internet Explorer does in Windows RT, the version of the upcoming OS Microsoft expects to see on iPad-rivalling tablets and ultraportables. On the other, the Bing refresh is seeing favorable comparisons between it and Google's contentious Search plus Your World refresh earlier this year.

The Mozilla argument plays well with those who never quite gave up on the idea of Microsoft being an evil, industry-dominating mastermind hellbent on control at any cost. As the Firefox maker puts it, Microsoft has purposefully blocked off all access to the "Classic" desktop in Windows RT, allowing only its own browser to run there, while rivals are left to make Metro-style apps instead.

Microsoft's retort – presumed, since the company won't comment yet on Mozilla's openness firestorm – is that Windows RT machines run to a new paradigm, educated by iPad-style consumer friendliness, and that simply porting a desktop app across would bring with it all manner of hangups and legacy headaches. Better, surely, to come up with a new version that makes the most of Metro's groovy new interface and the various speed and efficiency technologies present in Windows RT.

Indeed, dragging over software intended to be used with a keyboard and mouse and then "embiggening" the UI to accommodate fat fingertips is part of the reason Microsoft has struggled for so long with its tablet competitiveness. With commentators long criticising the firm for its janky slate strategy, it's difficult to look too harshly on it sticking to its guns with what will, for the consumer, mean more focused and device-appropriate apps.

[aquote]It's ironic, then, that in search Microsoft is being lauded for its openness[/aquote]

It's ironic, then, that over in search Microsoft is being lauded for its openness. The refreshed Bing, revealed today, follows Google's lead but does it in a way that's the very epitome of inclusiveness. Log into Facebook, Twitter, Google+ (or any of several other services) and you'll see not only sharing tools arrive in your Bing interface but interaction ones too.

So, Bing will allow you to identify which of your friends – across all the networks you've logged into – you see as potential experts in your current search topic, and easily pester them with questions. It'll also flag up possible third-party sources it believes to have expert knowledge itself.

Admittedly, Microsoft couldn't help but slot in a sly dig at Google along the way. "Both Bing and Google were starting to jam social signals into the Web results, and it turns out it wasn't that relevant and it was overloading users with clutter," Microsoft VP and Bing exec Derrick Connell said of the changes, while design manager Robert Dietz chastised "the noise and the extraneous information" found in most existing search tools. But even so, the company has cleverly sidestepped the big criticism leveled at Google with its own search changes: that it was doing it solely to shoulder out its rivals and promote its own Google+ social network.

Microsoft's system preaches inclusiveness; Google's prioritizes Google+. If your whole life is on Google+ then that's probably not an issue; however, very few people could probably say that today. Facebook and Twitter are still dominant forces in social, and Microsoft's willingness to integrate them into its search tools gives them equal billing.

There are flip-sides to each. You could argue that third-party app makers have all the Windows 8 flexibility they want: if they want to create desktop apps, they can do it in the x86 versions which are frankly likely to be far bigger sellers than Windows RT machines, for the next few years at the very least. And while reviews, sharing and reservations have all now been pulled into Bing from a broad gamut of sources, their presence on the search results page could, you might argue, mean less traffic to the sites themselves.

It's not easy being big, or open, or innovative. Google discovered that to its cost a few months back, with its privacy policy amalgamation. What it expected to be a PR win – making privacy policies easier to read – turned out to open a hornets nest of controversy and help kickstart antitrust investigations. Microsoft, though, appears to have scored at least one win today with its Bing approach, but with a sting in the tablet tail.