I watched the unveiling of Microsoft's Bing at AllThingsD yesterday, and was way more impressed than I expected. Of course, I should have known: Basically, it was Powerset repotted in fertile soil with lots of nutrients... I was an investor in Powerset, and it was a gratifying moment: like seeing your kid up on stage in well-deserved glory.
A few points to make:
How the world turns. If Microsoft had done this oh, say, five years ago, it would have been accused of grandiosity, taking over the Internet, etc. It's great for consumers and for marketers of products/services, but not so good for intermediaries such as Orbitz and all kinds of shopping sites. MS is bidding to become the intermediary -- or partnering with specific ones such as Open Table. And, years later but a month before now, if Google had offered a similar service, Google would have faced the same accusations. But if Google does something similar now (and it certainly has some of these same capabilities somewhere in the lab and somewhere in its mind), it will seem like a justified response. God bless competition!
Another interest group that may suffer: all those companies who made it so difficult for consumers to call them directly. With Bing surfacing their 800 numbers, they will have to become more responsive. I hope they don't respond by enlarging their voicemail trees.
Finally, what's interesting here is that the achievements aren't in search per se or even in the natural language interface; they are in the structuring of the data. Search, in a way, is like shining a spotlight into a dark room: You see a few things shining in the dark, but you can't really see what or where they are in context. Bing is like turning on the light and even tidying things up a bit so you can find what you're looking for, nicely arranged in transparent data drawers.
Last year at D, I (plus some other acolytes) had dinner with Bill Gates, who said something he had not pointed out on stage: "The future of search is verbs." In other words, you want actions, not just data/nouns. You want to reserve a table, book a flight, call a support line.
Shout-out to Barney Pell, and to MS overcoming its own immune system and neatly grafting in some cool technology plus a lot of real-world knowledge in specific domains. Algorithms alone are not enough.