More Than a Cherry on Top—Microsoft Search Honcho Harry Shum on Why Bing is Different from Other MS Products

A wise man once told me, “Engineers don’t lie.” So when I wanted to find out the real story behind Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine, I went to Harry Shum. Shum is Microsoft’s vice president of search product development. He runs the engineering team responsible for Bing, among other duties. He was formerly the managing director of Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, and he’s a Microsoft distinguished engineer. A few weeks ago, he granted a rare in-depth interview about all things Bing. He also spoke publicly about the search effort at this week’s Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond, WA.

What’s most striking about Bing is how well it has been received so far—especially compared to other recent high-profile Microsoft products (Windows Vista comes to mind). Bing, which was launched in full last month along with a serious marketing effort, has received mostly positive reviews, and has spurred a modest but significant increase in Microsoft’s market share in Web search—8.4 percent in June, up from 8 percent in May, according to comScore.

So a lot has already been written about it, of course. But I wanted to hear from Bing’s head of engineering about the deeper process of building the software, the technology behind it, and the culture of the search group within Microsoft—and, crucially, how its approach is different from other product groups in the company, in terms of the mindset of its engineers. There may be some important lessons in product innovation here.

Shum began with some historical context. Microsoft has been working on its search product for about six years, he said, while Google has been on the case for more than twice as long. Back in the 1990s, top Microsoft researchers like Eric Horvitz and Nathan Myhrvold talked about building a search engine and crawling the whole Web (only tens of millions of pages back then) with just a few dozen machines. But in terms of product development, Microsoft freely admits it came to search late and remains a heavy underdog in the battle for market share. “The competition is here, and we recognize and respect that,” says Shum, who took over the search team in the fall of 2007.

Indeed, Bing is a new opportunity in a long line of Microsoft search engines—MSN Search, Windows Live Search, and Live Search. “We really believe Bing represents a dramatic improvement in search,” Shum says. “It goes beyond a search engine. We claim Bing is a decision engine. It’s a tool to help users make everyday decisions.”

Whether you’re trying to buy a pair of shoes for a particular occasion, or looking up the local weather to decide how to dress, or tracking a package online, Bing tries to figure out your … Next Page »

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