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Microsoft grabs Google's attention by binding Bing and OS tighter than ever in Windows 8.1

Microsoft has spent the past several months telling anyone who will listen that Bing is not just competitive with Google's flagship search engine, it's a better product, hands down.

Man-in-the-street "taste test" ads are nice for the public at large, but the software giant doubled down on Bing at its annual Build developer conference in a way its developer ecosystem — not to mention Google — will likely find far more intriguing.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and other executives outlined a couple of important Bing developments in an opening keynote headlined by the introduction of Windows 8.1 Preview and built around the company's new commitment to push out updates to its software platforms faster than ever before.

Bing, no longer a shot-in-the-dark stab at Google's search dominance, is set to play a big role in the latest version of Windows and Microsoft's overall platform strategy, they said.

Microsoft's search technology is built directly into Windows 8.1, also known as Blue, more tightly than in Windows 8, Ballmer said. That Bing-ification will be extended to the company's other major platforms, including Windows Phone and the Xbox, he promised.

That means that more of Bing's capabilities, from a new 3D-mapping technology to app discovery to natural user interface (NUI) controls and analytics, will become intrinsically tied to the user experience in Microsoft products, said Microsoft's corporate vice president for Bing, Gurdeep Singh Pall, who demoed a few Bing-powered features in Windows 8.1 during the keynote.

Redmond is inviting its developers along to the party. Though "thousands of [Bing] APIs" are already available, according to Pall, Microsoft officially opened its search technology up as a platform developers can build upon, as well as launching a web portal for Bing developers.

What this all means is still a bit murky. Pall spoke broadly of Bing working "across the family of [Microsoft] devices," including smartphones, tablets, PCs, and Xboxes, to "add a bunch of new experiences." That sounds an awful lot like what Apple does and what Microsoft until recently hasn't much cared to do — which is cultivating and pruning and sometimes getting downright tyrannical about the promotion of a single, unified computing "experience" rather than allowing users to mix and match software and hardware as they see fit.

Tying Bing so tightly into its operating systems also stirs up memories of Microsoft's track record with this sort of thing. The software giant got into a lot of trouble with the anti-monopoly crowd over bundling IE with Windows back in the day. Perhaps a crucial difference this time around is that by some ways of counting, Redmond doesn't have the biggest OS anymore — and it certainly doesn't have the dominant search engine, as positive as Bing's growth has been over the past couple of years.

The big question will be the level and depth to which Microsoft allows developers access to its search technology. Pall certainly talked the talk of a man ready to hand over the keys to the kernel. If so, that would potentially give developers the ability to build search, and its offshoots, into their own creations in an unprecedented fashion, far beyond what is possible with Google's products.

"If we can do something with an API that is good, what third parties will be able to do will be dynamite," Pall said. "Next year, I want to be standing here on stage, showing some really interesting apps that you've built."