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Is Microsoft's Bing secretly for sale?

Microsoft publicly says the search engine is a core strategic asset for the company. But privately, could Redmond be exploring ways to offload it?

Microsoft Bing
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

There have been recurrent calls among some on Wall Street, some shareholders -- and apparently some execs inside Microsoft -- for Microsoft to dump Bing.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seems to be dead-set against the idea. The official Microsoft stance is Bing search is "a pretty strategic asset for the company" with benefits that "can be leveraged across our whole product set."

But privately it seems that some of Microsoft's key negotiators have floated the idea of offloading Bing to Facebook as a possible strategy. That's according to a New York Times report on April 23 having to do with the latest Microsoft-Facebook alliance -- this one involving the AOL patents Microsoft bought and is now selling to Facebook.

Just how serious the "let's dump Bing" discussions between unnamed Microsoft officials and their Facebook counterparts were isn't exactly clear. Here's how the Times described what their sources said:

"Some executives within Microsoft have advocated selling Bing to another company, with the idea that a company better focused on the Internet market could pose a more credible challenge to Google, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions who didn't want to be identified talking about internal deliberations.

"Over a year ago, Microsoft executives sent out feelers to Facebook to see if the company would be interested in acquiring Bing, though the overture was not officially sanctioned by Steven A. Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft, one of these people said.

"Mr. Zuckerberg declined, saying Facebook had too much else to concentrate on."

The implication here is at least some Microsoft execs think of Bing as nothing more than a thorn in Google's side -- a hoped-for distraction -- rather than as something central to Microsoft's future. If that is the case, it seems kind of crazy to me that Microsoft is continuing to integrate Bing into more and more of its products; rely on technologies powering Bing to help evolve the company's cloud and big-data technologies; and continue to hire big-name (and probably big-ticket) search and advertising talent to work at Microsoft.

Microsoft seems to be struggling to find ways to turn Bing from a perpetual money sink-hole into a revenue generator. (And some of these could backfire, as Istartedsomething's Long Zheng noted in a post.)

Could pressures from outside and inside force CEO Ballmer to reconsider his bullishness on Bing? Should they? What's your take?

This story originally appeared at ZDNet's Between the Lines under the headline "Bing, bang, boom: Is Microsoft's search engine secretly for sale?"