First Look I’ve taken Microsoft’s OpenAI-powered Bing search engine for a spin, and quite enjoyed its attempt at providing context to a list of links – but was frustrated by the low quality of its sources, suggestions, and user interface.

The BingBot bills itself as “your AI-powered copilot for the web” and offers three modes: Creative, More Balanced, or More Precise. The service suggests it’s good for three things: answering complex questions, getting better answers, and creative inspiration.

Using any of the three functions requires users to input text into a dialog.

So far, so AltaVista – just like search has been since the mid-1990s.

Like the search engines of yore, the Binginator makes users wait a few seconds before swinging into action by screening the text “Searching for: [your search term]”.

Then it delivers a very dialup experience by not offering a visible clue about what it’s doing other than presenting a tile that offers a small blue square and the text “Stop responding”.

The tile is sufficiently small that it’s not entirely clear if it’s a Stop button, or if it’s a good idea to press it – given that BingAI hasn’t produced a response when the Stop Responding tile appears.

That’s a little disconcerting as it’s not clear if the service is doing anything or will respond. A progress bar or hourglass-like UI element is clearly needed.

Once NüBing finishes, it produces results in the following format:

Bing AI result

Bing AI result – Click to enlarge

You’re looking at BingAI’s balanced mode response to the question “What is hyperconverged infrastructure?: The service delivered a decent answer – “Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) is a software-defined IT infrastructure that virtualizes all the elements of conventional hardware-defined systems” – and offered links to its sources.

Responses offer four or five such links – mostly Wikipedia and vendors’ web sites – and clicking on them produces the source in a new Edge tab.

I tried the same search a day later, in “More Precise” mode, and it changed a couple of words – but to my mind offered a less precise answer: “Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) is a software-defined IT infrastructure that virtualizes all of the elements of conventional systems.”

I asked BingBot a more abstract question: “What is The Register’s competitive differentiator compared to other business technology publications”. It offered the following analysis:

That sounds about right.

To test TheBingOfTomorrow’s creative powers I challenged it to “Write a song in the style of Beyoncé about Cricket in India”.

Here’s the result:

That’s a decent attempt. Even if it doesn’t actually mention India, SmartBing at least appears aware that the nation is famously obsessed with cricket.

In a more serious vein, I told the AI “I need a Python script to sort a database”.

Here’s what it produced:

import sqlite3 # Connect to the database
conn = sqlite3.connect('database.db')
c = conn.cursor() # Define the sorting criteria
sort_by = 'column_name'
order = 'ASC' # Use 'DESC' for descending order # Execute the query to sort the data
c.execute(f'SELECT * FROM table_name ORDER BY {sort_by} {order}') # Fetch and print the sorted data
sorted_data = c.fetchall()
for row in sorted_data: print(row) # Close the connection to the database

The code sample also produced three clickable questions, each of which initiated a new AI-powered search:

  • How do I connect to a different type of database?
  • Can I sort by multiple columns?
  • How do I save the sorted data?

Let down by UI

BingAI scrolls each successive search and response down the page – an interface that appears to inherit ChatGPT’s style.

That inheritance and confusion is the service’s weakness.

Search user interfaces are the product of nearly 30 years of evolution. Today, AI-infused Bing presents less information, less accessibly.

And less accurately. On ye olde the question “What is hyperconverged infrastructure” delivers the most satisfying result of all: “Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) is an IT architecture that virtualizes and consolidates all the elements of a traditional datacenter: compute, storage, networking and management.”

The OldeBing experience also offers more links, images and a “People also ask” panel. A little scrolling then produces videos and an “Explore more” section that links to Kubernetes, vSphere, Azure and the Xen Project. That’s a lot more information than NeueBing offers. And even though it is a lot, I felt glad for it.

I finished my time using Microsoft’s AI search feeling like it’s a quick and decent integration of ChatGPT into Bing’s search engine – but less useful than existing search engines.

Microsoft’s also not yet all in on AI search – scroll too far and you end up with a view of olde Bing, and a tab to return to the chat experience. It feels like being demoted – from SmartBing to DumBing – for no reason.

NüBing also produced inferior output to ChatGPT. When I asked the latter to write me a Beyoncé-themed Indian cricket song the resulting lyrics not only mentioned India but also name-checked legendary players. although perhaps lost a little of the woman-wronged vibe of SingBing’s effort.

A lot of people are going to try Bing with AI. Plenty of them will therefore spend more time using Microsoft’s largely unloved Edge browser – aka “The thing you use to download Chrome” – than would otherwise be the case.

Bing with AI will need to get a lot better – fast – if it is to deliver on Microsoft’s long-held dream to have more signed-in customers use its browser every day. Reinventing search may take even more work, and a willingness to look backwards to what makes search useful today. ®