Windows 8.1’s Smart Search functionality debuted last month, merging web results and traditional file search into a full-screen search experience across PCs and tablets. While Microsoft has created a number of visually engaging "hero" pages for certain queries — combining music, video, and information — the software company has much more ambitious goals for the future of Windows search: integrating apps and adding voice controls.
While hero pages were a first step for launch, Microsoft says they’re just one component of many features that will help shape the search experience in Windows — designed to rival Google’s web dominance. Microsoft has around 1,000 employees dedicated to its Smart Search feature in Windows 8.1, and it has plans to constantly improve it. "We have a roadmap for quite a long time for adding out new segments, adding out new kinds of information in heroes," explains Bing program manager Kieran Snyder to The Verge.
Investors still question Bing's existence
Bing hasn’t fared exceptionally well against Google as the web giant continues to dominate search. It’s not for want of trying, but Microsoft’s Bing updates and "Bing it on" efforts have done very little to convince consumers to switch away from Google. While analysts and investors continue to question Bing’s existence, Microsoft has been persistently investing in it to distance it from traditional web search. "The investments we have are much bigger than the specific experience we ship today," explains Snyder. "We see so much potential for what we can do with this."
That potential is on show today: TripAdvisor’s new app is now integrating directly into the Windows 8.1 search experience. If you have the TripAdvisor app installed and use the built-in Windows search to locate a hotel, reviews and hotel information from TripAdvisor will automatically populate the existing search results page. You can even book a hotel straight from the search results. Microsoft has tried similar app-integration points for Windows Phone in the past, with varying degrees of success, but this new attempt sits directly in the main search experience that millions of Windows users will take advantage of each year.
It’s just the first of many app integrations planned for the future, offering a glimpse at how Microsoft could combine third-party apps and services into a useful search experience that doesn’t ignore the wider web or local photos, music, and documents. "We have a ton of new apps coming on board," says Snyder. "As we build out that action set we’re getting more and more integration which is really what we wanted to see." That integration is key for Smart Search to be successful in Windows, and a way for it to mimic what’s already available on the company’s Xbox consoles. Bing is integrated directly into the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and performs a similar role of searching and surfacing content and information from third-party apps and services. If you search for Breaking Bad on Xbox it will gather information about the TV show while also displaying the services, like Netflix, that could allow you to watch it.
"We feel proud of the [Smart Search] experience," says Snyder, "but we feel like we’ll be prouder of the experience in six months…as we start adding out some of these things." Other big name apps will be integrating with Smart Search later this year, but Microsoft isn’t disclosing details yet.
"You should read the lack of voice search in Windows 8.1 primarily as we had a year to get it done."
The other missing part to Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 search experience is voice. "It is definitely in our planning," explains Snyder. "You should read the lack of voice search in Windows 8.1 primarily as we had a year to get it done." A rumored "Cortana" personal assistant for Windows Phone 8.1 is expected to make its way to Windows too, offering a Siri-like search experience. "We’re definitely talking to the phone team about their investments here," says Snyder, without talking specifics. As Google Now is increasingly integrated into Android and Google’s properties, Microsoft faces the prospect of slipping behind if it doesn’t harmonize its search experience across mobile and PC. Windows Phone has a similar centralized location to search like Windows 8.1, but it doesn’t feel as powerful yet.
That integration might come in the future, though. It’s clear that Microsoft’s Smart Search work is a prime example of the collaboration it needs to get back on track. The Bing and Windows teams worked closely over the past 16 months with designers and programmers, meeting every Friday morning for three hours to look at everybody’s work. Microsoft felt like the teams really need to be integrated and working closely. That sounds obvious, but it’s rare inside Microsoft for separate divisions to work so closely together. The software maker has a reputation for corporate boundaries that are rigid and competitive. "I think this kind of way of working together kind of gave rise to One Microsoft as a vision," claims Snyder. "It wasn’t reactive to the One Microsoft vision," it was sort of part of it, she adds. Just like the Xbox One, Microsoft has the building blocks for something far greater here. Ultimately, like always, it will all rest on the company’s execution.