Microsoft in Search of Breakthroughs

Software giant shares a bit about its 'best defense against war, famine and Google.'

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - Microsoft opened part of its Silicon Valley research operation to share a bit of the technologies and explorations its making in search of the next big hit. Rick Rashid, who's been in charge of Microsoft Research since it was founded in 1991, said research is the key to the company's success in good times and bad.

"The value of research? Microsoft is still here," said Rashid, a Microsoft senior vice president. "A lot of the companies that were around in the 1990s are not here anymore, but we are because we've been able to evolve and change."

Rashid said the research group has helped spawn "six or seven billion dollar businesses" at Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), including the Xbox and the continued evolution of Windows. The company claims every product it currently ships has been "influenced" by work done at Microsoft Research (MSR).

Much of the research takes a long time to percolate out to the product lineup; for example, the DirectX graphics technology that helps drive the Xbox was developed in the 1990s.

The Silicon Valley campus is one of five Microsoft Research centers worldwide, with a sixth slated to open in July in Cambridge, Massachusetts near M.I.T.

Rashid argued that basic research is the most effective response to competitive threats like a new technology or business model. It can also help a company prepare for other external threats.

"If something really bad happens -- a war, famine, Google, you can respond," Rashid joked to a large conference hall of several hundred attendees at the event. (No mention was made of Microsoft's most recent efforts to compete with Google, which have been centered on buying all or parts of Yahoo).

Roy Levin, a distinguished engineer and director of the Microsoft Research's Silicon Valley operation, spoke after Rashid and described several of the projects under way, which were also on display in a demo hall outside the conference hall.

In the PINQ

PINQ (for Privacy Integrated Queries) was described as a first step to help companies exchange certain data, like personal records, while protecting individual's privacy.

An example, would be medical records where, say, some outside agency wants to look at a company's records in aggregate. PINQ's Language Integrated Query (LINQ) framework, checks queries against certain rules to insure no individuals could be identified based on the results.

"Imagine a database of personal records," said Levin. "If a query is made to the database and the results are equally likely whether you're added in there or not. That would go a long way to satisfy the desire for privacy."

The Constellation Answer

Levin also discussed research into another project, called Constellation, which was not on display. The idea is to help users or IT departments more easily identify why something in a distributed system, like e-mail, stops working.

"In a distributed system, when an operation fails, you don't know which computer or service failed, you just know you can't do your work," said Levin. Constellation is designed to be an automated system based on machine learning technology to observe and record what's happening on the network including which systems and operations are dependent on each other.

In the e-mail failure example, Constellation probes all the dependent systems (bypassing ones it deems not relevant based on past observation). A graphical representation then shows the point of failure, such as one server failing to talk to another.

"We think this would be helpful to anyone running a large network," said Levin. "Which these days seems to be just about anyone."

But for now Constellation is very much a research project still in the development stage.

Other projects that were displayed include Boku, described as "Lightweight programming for kids." The high level-programming paradigm operates in a 3-D gaming world on the Xbox 360. Youngsters manipulate small virtual robots to achieve specific tasks designed as an easy introduction to some of the foundational elements of creative programming without having to write code.

Another project, WorldWide Telescope, serves as a kind of personalized virtual telescope to view many of the areas of the universe already recorded by astronomers. The service is already running and available for free at the Worldwide Telescope Web site.

Users can also record their own explorations and share those sessions. Microsoft said the service blends terabytes of images, data and stories from multiple sources over the Internet into a rich, immersive experience.

"None of the work on the Worldwide Telescope could have happened without broad collaboration of the astronomy community," said Rashid.

In addition to collaborations with professional groups, Rashid said almost 15 percent of Microsoft's basic research budget is invested in universities. Microsoft lays claim to having the largest internship program for PhDs of any technology company, with over a thousand PhD candidates participating.

But when it comes to what keeps Microsoft Research humming, he emphasized the importance of retaining skilled employees. "The most important thing Roy and I do is who we hire and who we fire," he said.

TAGS: search,Microsoft,research,privacy

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