For years Google was the undisputed ruler when it came to search engines, while Microsoft’s Bing was a bit of a joke – but it now seems that the market leader is no longer finding that particular joke funny anymore – and it may even be getting spooked.
Only a few months ago the mere thought of Google being remotely concerned about Bing was particularly chucklesome. Despite being bundled into Windows 11 and its built-in Edge web browser, the search engine was barely used, while Google’s market dominance was seemingly untouchable.
However, with the emergence of ChatGPT, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot with almost limitless possibilities, things have changed. Microsoft, which is a partner of OpenAI, the company behind the GPT language models ChatGPT uses, was quick to understand these possibilities, and integrated the technology into Bing, allowing users to search the web, and ask various questions or make requests, by ‘chatting’ to Bing in a natural way.
While it had its teething problems, it got people to notice (and use) Bing – and it looks like it’s rattled Google. Google implemented its own AI chatbot, Bard, soon after Bing’s AI upgrade, but despite some promising features, it doesn’t seem to have captured the public’s imagination in the same way as Bing and ChatGPT have. Now, according to a report in The New York Times (opens in new tab), Google is in a “panic” due to AI competitors.
The New York Times has apparently seen internal messages from Google that show particular concern at Bing’s growing mindshare thanks to its AI features at a time Samsung is apparently considering replacing Google with Bing as the default search engine on its Smartphones and other devices.
Losing this custom integration could be a big blow to Google. Not only would that potentially stop millions of Samsung customers from using Google every day, but the deal makes Google around an estimated $3 billion in annual revenue. Such a high-profile loss would be particularly troubling as Google has a similar deal with Apple which is up for negotiation later this year – and that is worth a much higher $20 billion.
The New York Times reports that many at Google had assumed that Samsung, whose smartphones run on Google’s Android operating system, would happily continue to use Google as its default search engine – so the idea of Samsung switching to Bing shocked many people at Google.
To be honest, I’d be very surprised if Samsung switches – Google is, understandably, tightly integrated into Android, and changing the default search engine could upset a large number of its customers, and despite Bing’s recent PR wins, it still remains unpopular compared to Google.
However, it’s not completely beyond the realm of possibility either. Bing’s AI capabilities could certainly sway Samsung – especially if it allowed the company to market its smartphones as featuring AI, which could become a key selling point in the future.
Samsung and Microsoft also have a long-standing relationship. For example, Windows 11’s popular Phone Link app, which allows you to control your smartphone from your PC or laptop, has additional features that are exclusive to Samsung handsets.
There certainly seems to be a worry at Google that losing Samsung to Microsoft is a possibility – which is why the search giant is doubling down on its own AI tools to counter these new threats.
The gift of the Magi
Internal documents seen by the New York Times apparently show that Google is racing to implement AI features in an ‘all-new’ search engine. This potentially huge overhaul of Google search is known internally as “Magi”, with designers, engineers, and executives working hard on a version of Google search that The New York Times suggests “would offer users a far more personalized experience than the company’s current service, attempting to anticipate users’ needs.”
While Google’s work on improving its search engine won’t come as much surprise, and its investment in AI is well-established (not only has it just launched Bard, it’s been a big player in AI for years, mainly thanks to its DeepMind lab), the picture painted by The New York Times report is one of panic.
Google has clearly not been in this position for a long time, and while project Magi may revolutionize the way we search the internet, I don’t want to see Google rushing its AI features.
Bard’s initial showing wasn’t entirely successful thanks to incorrect answers and unfinished features, and many people – including myself – ascribed those hitches to a rushed launch, with Google hoping to one-up Microsoft’s Bing AI launch by holding an event the day before.
If Google really wants to impress us, it should take its time. After all, it still has a lot going for it. It remains the most-used search engine in the world by a huge margin, and that gives its AI tools a huge advantage, as they are able to be trained on a massive amount of data.
There is some evidence that Google is taking a cautious approach to AI, at least. In a recent episode of 60 Minutes (opens in new tab), correspondent Scott Pelley spoke to several Google employees who are working on AI projects at Google's new campus in Mountain View, California.
CBS reports that Google CEO Sundar Pichai told Pelley that Google is actually "holding back on releasing more advanced versions of Bard that can reason, plan and connect to internet search on their own so that the company can do more testing, get more user feedback and develop more robust safety layers."
The evolution of AI, especially in the past few months, has been impressively fast, but it's important that there are checks and balances in place to ensure this AI gold rush doesn't become harmful. It's good to see Google seemingly taking that stance.
"How do you develop AI systems that are aligned to human values-- and including-- morality?" Pichai asks in the episode. "This is why I think the development of this needs to include not just engineers, but social scientists, ethicists, philosophers, and so on."
Google's caution and thoughtfulness are laudable but it's also a business and, what this latest episode shows us is that people aren’t as devoted to a search engine as Google might have hoped. Most people just want a search engine that works well and gives them useful results – so if a competitor comes along with better features, then Google may find its market lead slip.
While that could lead to panic, I’d much rather see a calm and calculated response. Increased competition can lead to greater innovation, and Bing’s success could force Google out of its comfort zone and start coming up with better reasons for us to use its search engine, rather than just because it’s the default. If that happens, then Bing’s growth could be the best thing that’s happened to Google in a long time.