Microsoft in Search of Breakthroughs

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.

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