Google has needed a kick in the butt for years, and Microsoft is ready to give it to them
- Microsoft announced an OpenAI-powered Bing update that brings some much-needed innovation to search.
- Win or lose, Microsoft is giving Google the kick in the rear end it's needed for a long time.
I don't need to tell you that it's become harder and harder over the years to use Google to find what you need on the web. The result you want seems to always be buried beneath and between ads, or else lost in the mix with all the other often-irrelevant information that Google tries to throw at you.
And yet, Google has never faced a real challenge to its search engine empire. Microsoft's Bing has endured for years as a consistent but distant second-place search engine — despite the tech titan's best efforts. Remember the ill-fated "Scroogled" campaign? Me either.
Now, the rapid rise of OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot has presented what may turn out to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to actually rethink search, after literal decades of Google setting the pace. On Tuesday, Microsoft announced the first real fruits of its partnership with OpenAI, bringing a nifty natural-language search option to Bing that opens some neat new possibilities.
"Search has remained the same since the last major inflection," Microsoft corporate VP Yusuf Mehdi said at the event announcing the update, adding that "the user experience is the same as 20 years ago." In an interview with Ben Thompson's Stratechery newsletter after the event, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman was a little harsher, calling Google a "lethargic search monopoly."
Ask this new Bing a question, like "Make me an itinerary for three days in Rome," and it comes back with one pretty darn close to instantly. Ask it to sum up each page of a document, and you'll get back some useful notes. The possibilities are, by definition, limitless. It reflects well on Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who has been widely praised for cozying up to OpenAI so early and moving so quickly on integration.
What's not clear is whether Microsoft will end up being the company to lead the charge through the disruption of search engine technology. Google is rapidly bringing AI to its own product lineup, meaning that Microsoft has a narrow window to eke away as much market share as it can before the competition closes in.
At the same time, this is a textbook example of how competition can be good for consumers. Even if all of this doesn't play out the way that Microsoft wants it to, and Bing never becomes the first-place search engine, this whole moment in tech history has been the swift kick in the posterior that Google has needed to get its act together and bring something new to the table.
"I hope with our innovation they will definitely want to come out and show that they can dance," Nadella said of Google in an interview with the Verge. "I want people to know that we made them dance."
Change has been a long time coming
That alone should be considered a huge victory not just for Microsoft, but for the industry as a whole — marking a rare moment when the acknowledged industry leader was caught off-guard by a relative upstart like OpenAI.
Disruption does come with its costs, however. Search advertising, as pioneered by Google and spread via the various arms of its business, is the revenue model that powers so much of the web. If the way we search changes, so too will Google's (and Microsoft's) ability to show the ads that keep the lights on. Maybe we won't be looking at as many display ads, but there will be something put in place to replace them.
Microsoft seems confident on this front. Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott told Stratechery that "I really think we're going to figure out what the ad units are, we will figure out what the business model is, and we have plenty of ability to do all of that profitably at Microsoft."
There's a more insidious cost, as well. ChatGPT has a well-documented propensity to say things that are misleading, dangerous, or flat-out wrong. In the words of author Hank Green, this whole thing "will drive the cost of bullshit to zero," especially as shady actors try to game the AI in the same way that they gamed search engine results. If users are to trust everything the chatbots say, there's going to have to be more work done around safety.
Ultimately, however, I think Microsoft and OpenAI deserve their fair share of the credit for actually bringing change to a part of the industry that's been famously resistant to it.
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