Microsoft Research fights critics, targets innovation

When the word "innovation" is tossed about many may look down their nose at the company sitting on top of the high-tech industry -- Microsoft.

The look is not without prompting given critics' charges that the software giant has chased innovation born from competitors such as Apple and Google. And who can forget Bill Gates's Internet Tidal Wave memo in 1995 that ushered Microsoft into an online world already in full bloom.

But it's not all tales of late to the party.

In fact, Microsoft planted the seeds of innovation 15 years ago when it established what has become one of its most distinguishing features, Microsoft Research (MSR). The lab has spawned innovations seen today in products from Windows Vista to Exchange Server to Xbox 360.

MSR has grown from an idea to more than 700 researchers working out of five labs around the globe with a budget of more than US$250 million. MSR incubates not only futuristic ideas but young minds, having hired 700 interns worldwide this year including 250 computer science PhD candidates in Redmond alone, which is roughly 21 percent of all the computer science PhD candidates in the United States. It's a program Microsoft officials say is the world's largest PhD. internship program for computer science.

The MSR staff, however, is not just computer scientists, it includes psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and medical doctors who are tasked with pushing the envelope on state of the art technology as much or more than transferring their technology into new and existing Microsoft products.

But it is that technology transfer -- from lab to shipping product -- where many companies are typically judged.

Best stuff on cutting room floor

"Technology is littered with vendors that have cool stuff in labs," says Ian Campbell, CEO of Nucleus Research. "Microsoft as an innovator is good for creating things behind the scenes but bad at bringing them to market."

While technology transfer is only one aspect of MSR, which has a dozen people working on that issue alone, the lab does have a laundry list of technology innovations that are part of the Microsoft product portfolio, including storage advancements used to support the backend of Microsoft's Windows Live Mail service (formerly HotMail), Vista's SuperFetch feature that keeps tabs on a PC's most used applications and holds them at the ready, interactive voice response technology that makes the phone an Exchange 2007 client, and the TrueSkill ranking feature that is key to Xbox Live's online gaming.

In addition, a new program called IP Ventures, which launched in May 2005, is licensing some of the lab's intellectual property such as face detection/tracking and gesture-based text input to start-ups and high-growth companies, who push it out into the marketplace.

The first company to surface with a product has been Wallop, which fired up a social networking site just two months ago based on MSR technology.

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