Microsoft today is releasing its first iPad application, a version of its Bing mobile application that's been specifically designed for tablet users.
And make no mistake about it, Microsoft is trying its hardest to encourage people to use it over the built-in Safari browser when searching and exploring the Web.
It's a bold claim, so let's take a look at some of the things that the Bing iPad app does to back up that claim.
As you'd imagine, the app revolves around searching on Bing. No matter what you're doing in the app there's a search bar in the top--just like in Safari. The Bing app makes that bar considerably larger, as well as adding voice search powered by TellMe, and a jump list on the side with suggestions, related searches, search history, and a category filter to pick between Web searches, and news, video and image search.
Each time you search, a tile swoops in from the right side of the screen, acting as a tab of its own. You can zoom, pan and navigate through these just like you would a tab in your browser, with the addition of a highlighting tool to hunt for words or phrases on Web pages that's easier to find and to toggle on and off than its Safari counterpart.
These Bing results pages stack, so if you want to go back to a previous search, you can just slide your finger across the screen to jump to a different page. This type of UI is similar to Twitter's iPad app, but lets you stack together a bigger group of preview pages. As an unfortunate side effect, pages that have loaded get purged from the iPad's memory pretty quickly (at least on the first-generation iPad), so it's not nearly as seamless as having multiple open tabs on your desktop browser, or using a third-party iPad browser with tab support that does a better job saving page states to memory.
Nonetheless, the system has been designed for you to tear through searches, then hop back and forth between the results and destination pages. These stay persistent from session to session, using your Bing history as a frame of reference, so that you can come back and go through past searches just by continuing to swipe backwards in time. Those in a hurry can also hop to a dedicated history section that lists all your past searches.
Where the line begins to blur, though, is that the app doubles as a content aggregator. Just like with the iPhone version, you can view weather, movie listings, and news, but the iPad app places these items as tiles at the bottom of the app's home screen. Clicking on any of them will fire up a specially formatted page for the iPad. You can also customize certain ones like finance and weather to use your favorite stock symbols, or location so they'll give you that info from their thumbnail. Considering the iPad doesn't ship with first-party apps for weather or stocks, this is a nice two-for-one.
Adding to this is a dedicated news reader, which breaks down the top stories by category and gives you a thumbnail, headline, who published it and when it was published. You can tweak what sections are included in this reader, as well as where they appear. Once again, the swiping UI comes into play, so once you're done reading any of the articles you've clicked on, you can simply swipe it off the screen to find another story to read, or swipe in the other direction to bring it back.
To break out specific points of interest, there's the trends tab, which breaks down the day's trending search topics as a jumping off point for searches. This is exclusive to the iPad application, though Bing.com keeps a shortlist of trending topics on its front page that changes throughout the day.
Each day in the trends section gets a grid of 10 thumbnails, and the app lets you go back for the past seven days to see what was trending. Depending on what kind of content it is, it will open up in a different type of Bing search results page. So if you click on something like a celebrity who's been in the news, you'll get taken to a page that tells you who they are, shows you what they look like, and serve up any related news stories about them. Whereas if you click on something like a music video, it will deliver you to a video player page (which it's worth noting was not working through the in-app browser when I gave the app a spin).
The whole time this is going on, you're never jettisoned from the application or even given the option to open up some pages in Safari, as other apps have done. You can copy and e-mail Bing links, but if you want to bookmark them, or send them to a printer--as you can do in the iPad's browser--you're out of luck with the current version. By comparison, Google's search app on the iPad includes a link out to Safari, as well as letting you jump straight to URLs from its search bar without first having to venture to the search results page.
All in all, Bing has made a graceful jump from the iPhone and iPod Touch to the iPad. What the Bing folks have managed to do with the additional screen real estate goes a long way toward making information gathering and entertaining oneself a seamless experience in a way that's familiar, but uniquely different from the desktop version of Bing. Is it a different enough one to make people choose it over the browser for ingesting content? With the lack of a way to peck in URLs, bookmark sites, or quickly jump to specific open pages, not entirely. But considering how close the much more capable search bar is at all times, and all the stories, photos and videos at your fingertips, these omissions are not a major problem.
Bing's iPad app hits the App Store today and is being offered as a separate entity from its iPhone and iPod Touch sibling.