Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Consider the source.
So, there’s another ferryman on the internet’s River Styx : Bing. Microsoft’s new entry into what some people are surprised to learn is a competitive category, search. Yes, yes, I know. The propeller-heads in the audience will point out that there’s a pantload of search engines out there and always has been. They will point out that Bing isn’t even the only piece of major news in this ‘category’ right now, and will solemnly gesture to the impenetrable Wolfram Alpha as proof.
But, the fact is, for millions upon millions of people who use the internet with the same level of engagement as they do their kitchen faucets, Google is search. The hydro company delivers electricity, the municipality delivers water, the phone company delivers maternal guilt, and Google delivers answers. For all those people, Google is the public utility for finding things online. We believe, because we need to believe, that they’re almost like a government: a bit too powerful, but omniscient and commercially agnostic.
What makes this new brand interesting to me is that I think there are about 17 people in the world who could call themselves connoisseurs of search. I think the rest of us operate on the naively hopeful assumption that the answers are the answers. Our relationship with this product is based on faith. And faith is based on imputed motive. In other words, we’ll judge a new brand like Bing summarily on the basis of what we think it’s really up to.
On this score, I think Bing has some challenges, and they all have to do with the assumption that we wanted choice – and thus brands - in search. They have a lush, designery interface. They have a slogan. They have an advertising budget, and it’s twice the size of their main competitors’. And most of all, the parent of this brand is not a mythic duo of Stanford University nerds on a mission to save humanity, but rather one of the world’s largest and frankly wealthiest corporations. A corporation for whom search is but one of many profit centers. Where Google has always felt like a library, Bing feels like a mall.
I think they’re in for a rough ride. I’m not sure most of us really wanted to have to choose a default search engine. And if we did, I’m not sure Microsoft’s is the one we’d choose. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether it’s any good or not. It has to do with our natural suspicion of any brand that grandiosely promises to solve a problem we didn’t know we had.
Especially when they’ve done it before. Those of us with a little grey hair will remember the launch of Windows 95. There, at the moment when most computer users were desperately hoping the whole operating system thing would settle down so we could get on with the future, Microsoft wheeled out the Rolling Stones. And Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry. And Wheezer. And lit up the Empire State Building and the CN Tower. They came across as arrogant and rich. And three years later, they were in court on anti-trust charges. Proof, possibly, that of all the things you should never assume about your brand, benefit of the doubt is perhaps the most perilous.
Bing won’t turn out quite like Windows 95, I’m sure. And, partly, that’s because we aren’t quite like we were in 1995, either. But if I were Microsoft, I’d give some thought to humility. And empathy. And to listening a little harder to what people need instead of assuming they’ll buy whatever you can invent.
Apples’ already got that market cornered.