April 11, 2011

Microsoft’s new Bing iPad app, released Thursday, does more than search — it begins to remake the newspaper experience in digital form.

The app is not being marketed as a news platform, but journalists should consider it one because it offers a great local information utility for the iPad age.

The app is already receiving high marks from consumers. Out of 621 ratings in the iTunes store by Friday, 524 give it the top score of 5 stars. In fact, the comments are so positive I spot-checked a dozen for any obvious astroturfing. As far as I could tell, the feedback is legitimate. For instance, from iTunes user Scott Daly:

This iPad app made me a true Bing believer!
This has to be one of the most beautiful looking and helpful apps I now have and it’s free. The app contains a wealth of features and has been exceedingly well designed to take advantage of the iPad’s strengths – this can definitely not be called just a search engine app.

Bing front page
Bing’s home screen features a different image each day.

The app is not significantly different than what Google or Yahoo offer on the Web. But Bing has redesigned its features into a tablet-friendly interface that begins to feel like the content-bundle of a daily newspaper.

That bundle includes channels for news, weather, movies, stocks, maps, traffic, business listings, videos and shopping. (All the app is missing are the comics and Dear Abby.) News is sectioned into standard categories: Top stories, U.S., Sports, World, etc. The results are apparently all automated, closely resembling those found at bing.com/news.

The app’s primary weakness is likely a result of Microsoft being a tech company focused on search, not content. The news selection feels like it is programmed by an algorithm, not chosen by a person making editorial decisions.

Like Google News, the stories presented are only as good as the algorithm selecting them. Those calculations work fairly well for major national and international events, but are of little use in surfacing local and regional news.

At first I thought the app was missing a significant opportunity to provide personalized news results based on location. It does use geography to provide a weather forecast, and at first glance, that seemed to be all.

Bing News Search
The app provides search results within several categories, including news.

But during testing, I searched on “Nashua, NH” — a nearby city. Within the search channel, news from Nashua was immediately highlighted. This was unexpected and actually a bit confusing as it was unclear I was still within “search” not “news.” It took a moment to figure out how to get back to U.S. and World news from there. Adding a few rows of personalized news search in the main news channel would resolve that problem, and make the app even more useful.

Some of the news search results were outdated (there was one two-week-old story) or irrelevant (a story from Montana). There is a “best or most recent” option for the news search results, but neither choice was any more effective in weeding out poor results.

Bing weather
The weather channel within the app is adequate, but not comprehensive.

The shopping and video channels simply link to Bing’s offerings on the Web. The weather channel is adequate, not nearly as in-depth as the Weather.com app.

As I have argued before, though, consumers are not always looking for in-depth information. In may cases, a quick sports score, or the afternoon forecast is all they want. Providing that information at a basic level can still be valuable to readers, even if ESPN is always just a click away.

Though it features a collection of content channels, Bing is not a media app in the traditional sense. But it does inhabit a new middle ground — almost a news app, almost a weather app — but still a search engine at heart. So, Bing is not going replace any of the apps already on your iPad, but it does provide a roadmap for a new way of thinking about presenting information on a tablet.

The challenge for publishers is that Microsoft could easily move toward a Flipboard-like personalized experience in its next upgrade. Done well, that could present a challenge for local and national media apps. That is true especially as consumers look for alternatives to the growing list of paid-content media websites and mobile apps.

For now, Bing is not a fully featured aggregator like Flipboard or an original news source such as The New York Times. But for some consumers it may be a decent alternative.

If the old news bundle was based on original content and advertising, the new one will be technology-focused, including search, aggregation and personalization. So, building digital audiences will require blending content and tech skills.

And while Microsoft is not in the news business, to succeed as an information provider may only require the company to be slightly better at content than journalists are at technology.

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