Saturday, June 13, 2009

Microsoft's Sickness

Microsoft just launched a new search engine: Bing.

The engine is already causing headaches for Microsoft in China. There aren't any problems about lewd pictures or politically-insensitive content. No, "Bing" is just a stupid name for a Chinese website.

From The Wall St. Journal:
After a brief hiatus last week, software giant Microsoft’s Bing search engine is back online in China.

Microsoft launched a Chinese version of Bing on June 1 at, marking the first time the company has offered a Web product specifically targeted at the 298 million Web users in mainland China. But unlike its American counterpart (and like many of the other international versions of Bing), Chinese Bing is still a bit of a shell at this point, without all of the handy features that are available on the U.S. search engine.

And in China, Microsoft prefers not to call it “bing,” since that sound can have several meanings in Mandarin, depending on the tone and character associated with it. For example, this word: 病. Pronounced bing (fourth tone), it means “sickness” or “to be ill,” something most people would prefer to avoid. Other “bings” mean ice, soldier and pancake.

The Chinese version has thus been named “biying” (必应) which means “must respond/answer” and which Microsoft is marketing it as a“decision engine”– something that will provide information to assist Internet users with their decision-making processes.

Read On
This is a pretty funny scenario. It reminds me a lot of the classic example of the Chevy Nova trying to be sold in Latin America. In that case, "no va" loosely means can't go. The story I remember is that this naming-flub doomed the car's sales in Spanish-speaking countries.

It turns out that this Nova situation isn't completely true though. I just did a Google search on it and found this article from
Chances are you've heard about how Chevrolet had problems marketing the Chevy Nova automobile in Latin America. Since no va means "it doesn't go" in Spanish, the oft-repeated story goes, Latin American car buyers shunned the car, forcing Chevrolet to embarrassedly pull the car out of the market.

Chevrolet's woes are often cited as an example of how good intentions can go wrong when it comes to translation. There are literally thousands of references to the incident on the Internet, and the Nova example has been mentioned in textbooks and often comes up during presentations on cultural differences and advertising.

But there's one major problem with the story: it never happened. As a matter of fact, Chevrolet did reasonably well with the Nova in Latin America, even exceeding its sales projections in Venezuela. The story of the Chevy Nova is a classic example of an urban legend, a story that is told and retold so often that it is believed to be true even though it isn't. Like most other urban legends, there is some element of truth in the story (no va indeed means "it doesn't go"), enough truth to keep the story alive. And, like many urban legends, the story has the appeal of showing how the high and mighty can by humiliated by stupid mistakes.

Read On
So maybe the Chevy Nova in Latin America isn't completely analagous here. But it is in the same ballpark.

I'm not sure what Chinese people are going to think of the change from "Bing" to "Biying." The web address is still going to be, so it's not as if people will be typing "Biying." I could see confusion or mocking of Microsoft over this name.

The Wall St. Journal article also goes on to discuss some other problems with the site. Again, it's not being threatened by the Great Firewall or anything. It's just that it's not a very good site or search engine. And the search market on the Chinese internet is already firmly established. So an inferior product just isn't going to cut it.

I don't really feel sorry for Microsoft blowing a big opportunity here. I haven't been a fan of the company for some time now. I bought a Mac Book a couple years ago and would never consider buying a PC again. Apple OS X is so much better than Windows, in my opinion. In addition to operating systems, Microsoft has also fallen behind with its search (MSN and Bing), its web browser (Internet Explorer), and its email (Hotmail).

Office is still pretty good though. I'll give Microsoft that.

Maybe one day 必应 will be big in China. I doubt it though. It's probably going to, instead, be another symptom of Microsoft's 病.


Ramesh said...

This illustrates the problem with global brand names. Almost any name will either be a joke or offensive in some language or the other.

Having said that, I share your sentiments of not shedding a tear for Microsoft. They don't deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Another Apple fan here.

Glad to see Microsoft doesn't "get it" over in China either. Microsoft tried to convert their name to a Chinese one when they first started launching their products over there and the name they came up with translated literally to "little flacid". The Chinese were not impressed.

Oh, and I just love their new "I'm a PC" commercials where they send folks out to try and buy an Apple for under a $1000 and then send them out to buy a PC where of course they succeed and then gush about their wonderful new PC. Wow, that would be like Hyundai seeing if people with 10k could go out and buy a Mercedes, and after being unsuccessful, glowing about how happy they are to be driving that new Elantra.

Well done Microsoft, people get what they pay for, I get it. If it weren't for the PC being such a universal gaming platform and having early ties to the business community, the PC and Microsoft's junk software would already be dead. Hope all those people with that $500 PC enjoy having to reformat that thing every few months.

Steve Macbeth said...

Very strange blog post. First the title is very misleading, as you point out in the blog article the Nova example is a myth.

Second I don't see how this is an example of bad branding, as Microsoft (I happen to work for Microsoft on Search in China) has choosen a very appropriate Chinese name for the product. Which has been remarkable well received in the Chinese press and blogging community.

Almost all International companies use their global brand name as the URL, even though almost all of the them have transliterated brand names in China. See, or for great example of strong local branding that supports the International brand.

I seems like you were just looking for something to mock Microsoft about, but couldn't actually find anything so you wrote the article anyways.

It is true that Bing in China isn't nearly as full featured as Bing in the US (which you may have noticed is getting very positive reviews), but we are working hard to delight our customers in China.

Hope you will give Bing a real chance before you write it off.

Steve Macbeth
General Manager
Search Technology Center - Asia

Mark said...

Thanks for the good responses, guys.

I like your take on that commercial, Hopfrog.

Steve, I appreciate your comment. I've never had a response from such a highly-ranked person or someone who is so directly involved with what I'm writing about. It's good to hear your take on this.

Honestly, I think 必应 is a very clever name. It's kind of amazing that something so close to "bing" means, "has to respond" (or whatever its exact translation is).

The Nova example is an interesting one. And it supports your case that there is nothing really wrong with the name "bing" in China. I also see what you mean by Chinese sites that have straight forward English names having Chinese ones that aren't typed in as the pinyin is.

But at the same time, a search engine named in China is a rather comical phenomenon. I asked my Chinese fiancee what she thought of the name being a Chinese search engine (without giving her any other information). She laughed. I then explained to her that it is Microsoft's new search engine and that they call it 必应. She then said, "Oh, you mean 'must win.'" Obviously, my tones were a bit off and she thought the name was 必赢 which means "must win." Maybe that's not a bad name for you guys either!

But her initial reaction to, laughing, has to say something.

Ramesh has a point; global branding is annoying and any name probably has bad connotations somewhere.

It's just unfortunate for Microsoft that this (possible) confusion occurred in the country with the largest number of internet users.

Anonymous said...

"But her initial reaction to, laughing, has to say something."

It's actually a pretty fucking stupid name in English for a start, isn't it? Maybe they came up with the "biying" first for the Chinese audience and then transliterated it into English. That would make as much sense.

Mark said...

For what it's worth, Anonymous, when I heard the name "Bing," I thought of this:

1. binger

A heady bong rip taken directly to thy dome.

Ah dude, we gotta take some bingers before that beasters math test.

Anonymous said...

Quote "I seems like you were just looking for something to mock Microsoft about, but couldn't actually find anything"

Thats rich. I count no less than 2,000 different things to mock Microsoft about. I'm sure its not for lack of finding faults with Microsoft that this blog entry was written about Bing. Lay off the Kool-aid at the company picnic.

How sad is it when people go back to the older versions of their software. I reinstalled XP on all of my computers but this one, only cause I don't wanna rerip all my CD's and photos. Its junk and quite telling how so many things were ripped off directly from Apple's OS but just poorly executed. Of course I'm sure Xerox can tell you all about your company's wonderful history of ripping people off. Well then why do I use your product?? I'm a gamer, I have no choice as most mainstream games will not run on an Apple. That has changed in recent years.

An Apple will be my next computer.

Taylor O said...

I probably won't use it, but Bing is somewhat interesting. Microsoft has a trail of failed ventures first trying to make a search portal, then, etc. It's a moving target that can't gain enough momentum. Bing is a step in a better direction but I doubt they will stick with it, as their track record has shown.

They have integrated a bunch of neat technology including an acquisition from a startup I had the beta to for awhile, Farecast. It predicts if the price of plane tickets is going up and down so you can figure out if you should buy or not. That's very much along the lines of so-called smart technology and I look forward to seeing all sorts of new applications like that.