Could mobile search be Bing’s big breakthrough?

Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Google dominates search on the Web, but on mobile phones — where distribution matters and where the lessons of Google’s ways are well understood — Microsoft just might have an edge.

The escalating rivalry between Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) might be the best thing that happens to Bing this year. Microsoft’s  little decision-engine-that-can has yet to make much headway on mobile browsers. Ever since the iPhone launched with Google as its default search engine, Google has dominated the mobile web: its search had 30 million unique visitors in January, according to Nielsen. Thanks in part to a lucrative distribution deal inked with AT&T (T), Yahoo (YHOO)  had 6.5 million visitors. Microsoft’s search products? Just 3.8 million.

But in such a new and fast-growing market, it’s a mistake to think Google has search locked up. So far, distribution deals have been key to dominating search on mobile handsets. As Google gets into the phone business, with the launch of its Android operating system and even its own handset, many smartphone makers will likely think twice about relying on the company that is cutting into their business. Rumors already abound that Apple is considering working with Microsoft (MSFT) to launch Bing as the default search engine for upcoming Apple products like the iPad and even the iPhone.

Even if these rumors don’t come to fruition, Bing stands to gain greater distribution. It has been popping up all over the place recently as cellphone manufacturers and wireless carriers look to balance the risks that come with relying too much on Google. On March 10, Motorola (MOT) announced it would add Microsoft’s search product to its Android handsets, beginning with Android phones released in China this quarter. The news comes in the wake of escalating tensions between Google and the Chinese government after Google threatened to stop doing business in the country earlier this year.

Just before the holidays, the black “Bing” icon popped up on myriad BlackBerrys as a partnership penned with Verizon (VZ) more than a year ago finally kicked in (Verizon: Microsoft Beats Google). Verizon now offers Bing on all of its smartphones except its Android offerings, where it ships the devices with Google. When asked about the Bing application recently, a Verizon representative called it a “first stop,” explaining that users can visit the app store to download any search product they want.

Indeed, these distribution deals may be less important in the future as consumer loyalty switches from the wireless carriers (AT&T or Sprint (S)?) to the devices (BlackBerry or iPhone?). No matter what the default, consumers may turn to their app stores to download the products they like best.  In this environment, Bing’s most important partners won’t be the tech companies or the phonemakers but consumers. But for now, an Apple partnership would go a long way.

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