Microsoft has cooked up a new version of its Bing software toolbar that the company thinks can change the minds of toolbar haters.
"I know what you're saying to yourself--'really, a tool bar?'" Bing Director Stefan Weitz joked to me in an interview last week. Weitz mused that when he had first heard the pitch about it, his first response had been "are we doing dial-up too?"
But Weitz was pleasantly surprised with the results of the new version of the software, and so were the testers who tried it during the new version's development. "People--when they saw what we built--even if they said they hated toolbars (myself being one of them) said 'hey this is actually remarkably useful.'"
That enjoyment, Weitz said, centered on taking some of the same ideas from Bing--things like bringing more tasks front and center--and making them take fewer steps to complete. One of the big targets for that goal ended up being Facebook, which users had wanted to keep an eye on while doing other things in the browser.
"Now, as you live more and more in the browser, actually pulling in all the disparate data sources that you have or want to use--your mail, or your Facebook status, and all these things across the Web--ends up actually making more sense," Weitz said.
To that end, users are now able to grab information from a broader range of services without having to keep the extra tabs open, or save those pages to their favorites. That's been extended to e-mail as well, so instead of just offering up access to Hotmail, it works with Gmail and Yahoo Mail as well. Users are also able to add multiple accounts for each of these services, so they don't have to pick just one.
One other change that's been brought over from the Bing side are deep links. These are things like the check-in page when searching for an airline, or the customer service page when doing a search for a retailer. "Deep links are one of those things people love when they're looking at search results," Weitz said. "Now we're pulling in deep links to any entity right here in the search bar."
This is the seventh iteration of the Bing toolbar, which remains an add-on only for Internet Explorer users who are using version 7 or above. The newest version takes design cues from IE9, which had its first release candidate pushed out to users last week. Gone are the rounded corners and liquid-like exterior, replaced instead by an angular look that matches up with some of the company's other modular designs found on the Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 7. There are also angled icons for each sub-tool like movies, stocks, and weather, which will be joined automatically by apps that Microsoft decides to push out in the future.
The toolbar continues to be an important part of Microsoft's plan to increase Bing use, as well as improve its results with information like clickstream data, which captures information about what users are clicking on and sends it back to Microsoft anonymously. The feature requires that users first opt-in before it's sent.
Earlier this month, that very habit became a point of concern by Google, which had pointed fingers at Microsoft for "copying" its results after it had a team of engineers seed the toolbar with synthetic queries. Microsoft sternly refuted the allegations, saying that clickstream data was just one of more than 1,000 signals the search engine was using at any given time to create and rank its results. Shortly thereafter, Weitz had told CNET that the whole incident had been "insulting." During our interview his outlook seemed a bit rosier.
"Everyone always asks us, 'are you taking share from Google,' or 'are you taking share from Yahoo, or whoever else?' And the answer is that you don't have to take share from anybody. You can actually grow the pie," Weitz said.