Industry titans Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. are getting rave reviews this week about innovative new approaches to Internet search and communications, respectively.
Even Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak told a reporter that Microsoft's new Bing search engine looks "astounding" and that he's "a big fan, now."
There's much to like. In a nutshell, Bing does more to surface information you're probably looking for than Google does. For example, if you search for a company, one of the top results will present links to customer service, store locator -- that kind of information.
If you haven't seen it, go here to see the Microsoft pitch for Bing.
Looks great, right? What's not to like. Well...
If you'll notice, the URL for the video link above is: DecisionEngine.com. And that's exactly what Bing does better than Google. It makes decisions for you. Of more concern is that it makes decisions for all users. So what's wrong with that?
Well, nothing for you and me. For individual people, Bing is a nice alternative to Google and the other search engines. It can save you time and hassle for some kinds of searches -- no question about it.
The problem is how Bing might affect culture, especially if Google copies some of its features to neutralize Microsoft as a competitor. In other words, if search engines that made decisions for you is a trend, it's probably a bad trend, not a good one.
Decisions are -- and must be -- based on value judgments. To use Bing is to see the Internet through Microsoft's corporate values. For example:
- Bing brings "the best match to the top," not the most popular. In other words, Microsoft is overriding the democratic approach for an elitist, we-know-best approach.
- The demo video shows a search for "home depot," which offers alternatives to the left of the results, including "Ace Hardware" and "Walmart." That the alternative to a mega-chain is another mega-chain is a value judgment. Why isn't the mom-and-pop hardware store in my neighborhood the best alternative to Home Depot? To some it is. To Microsoft, it isn't. Could Bing, if popular, accelerate the demise of locally owned businesses in favor of giant corporations?
- "Bing's health results bring together resources from the top medical sources in the world, including the Mayo Clinic," Microsoft says in the demo. Microsoft's value judgments about whom to trust for medical information win the day, namely conventional Western medical authorities. Alternative therapies, which may favor diet and exercise for obesity or cardiovascular disease over drugs and surgery, are buried. The whole complex debate about whether the Western medical establishment is overly influenced by pharmaceutical industry pressure, insurance industry pressure, and so on, is settled before you even start exploring your options. Microsoft has chosen sides -- for all of us.
Yes, Bing is easy. It's always easy to have someone else choose your values and make your decisions for you. But is that good for society?
Google Wave also demos well. And what's not to like? The prototype promises the joining together of e-mail, chat, photo sharing and other forms of communication into a single online app.
At first glance, the "hosted" messaging system of Wave looks compelling. You can comment to a specific part of a conversation by dropping in your note right there in the message (rather than copying and pasting).