A Microsoft Man on a Mission in China

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2006-01-12

A Microsoft Man on a Mission in China

Harry Shum, Ph.D., the managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, is on a mission.

His primary mission is to lead Microsoft Corp.s research efforts in China from his office in the heart of Beijings top academic, science and technology corridor. His immediate goal is to help Microsoft catch and beat Google in the search technology space.

A committed fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and their smash-mouth football style of play, Shum is not one to shy away from competition, even when it involves friends and former colleagues. Kai Fu Lee, who formerly held Shums position at Microsoft, has moved over to Google to lead that companys R&D efforts in China.

Shum met in his Beijing office with eWEEK senior editor Darryl K. Taft for a candid exchange.

What are some of the key areas you guys focus on here?

We focus on five major areas. When we started we knew we wanted to work on the human-computer interface. When we started, it was evident that for Microsoft, we really have to think about that for all of our customers, not only for those users in North America or who always use Roman characters.

For people in China, Korea and Japan, its very important that we design the computer-user interface so that we can use it very easily like Chinese speech and like handwriting. So we have done a lot of component technology for Chinese and Japanese language, something called the language model came out of our lab. A lot of handwriting technology for the Tablet PC came out of our lab.

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Another area is digital media. You probably have a lot of photos and videos, etc., on your computer, so being able to better store and process them is important. We are working on technology for that.

The third area we started here is digital entertainment, because computers are not just for processing, theyre being used more for entertainment. So we are working on projects for that.

The fourth area is system and networking. Computers nowadays are all connected, so system issues, networking issues and wireless issues all have to be addressed. And weve done a lot of work in this area.

The fifth area we started a year and a half ago is Web search and data mining, because now this is such an important area—not only for Microsoft, but for the entire industry. We have a group of very talented people here working on that.

You mentioned search and data mining as a key area of focus here. How much more is there to be done in this area? Maybe my view is naïve, but whenever I go to search for something I seem to have pretty good success finding it. So what more do we need?

I wish it could be as simple as that. But the truth is that the search thing is still very, very difficult. And its difficult because users are very, very different. People have different requirements for search. You could just search for a restaurant and then you get that and be happy. Or people could need to do a search to find information for a term paper. This is the so called recovery and discovery part. Recovery is where you say youve seen something before, just recover it for me.

When you get to discovery it gets very complicated and I dont think we really understand that yet. Typically, when people do search today its one or two words about 95 percent of the time. But if you have something reasonably complicated or reasonably long, were still not there yet.

So there is something called search relevance that Google has been ahead of most competitors in. But the gap is closing. And Yahoo claims statistically that this difference does not even exist anymore between Google and Yahoo. MSN, with a lot of help from MSR is closing the gap like crazy. We will be catching up with them in a matter of months. And something will be there. But that is only one problem—one very tough problem, however.

There are many other things. Its really about once you get this search thing. First of all, you get this search thing right, that will continue to be a big research issue … even involving system design, architecture, how quickly you can search, for instance.

So its not just performance youre looking at?

Its not just performance. Performance is certainly an issue. Google now is building this 500-computer cluster, and Microsoft is looking at a lot of things in content delivery. Those are great things that have to be done.

But its not just the algorithm part of that. Its really a lot of things there. In the end, my view is its really about the user experience. The way I look at it is I approach search and many other topics as "have we delivered what the user really wants?"

You mean like personalization?

Like personalization, like mobilization. I think we just dont totally understand it all yet. And the funny thing is that even though search probably only gives you about 30 percent of the correct answers, the users are already pretty happy today. Likewise with speech recognition, you have 95 percent correctness and users say this is a piece of … So you see its a very different thing.

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And we as researchers see that even though the technology is flawed it can be useful. But then two years later when people get used to the technology, people will say this Google thing doesnt really give me anything yet. Can search engines please give me something more usable? Peoples expectations will keep going up.

So I will say this is going to be a long battle. And Im not happy Google is ahead, but thats OK, we have something to do there as well. So two years later I think things might change. There are a lot of smart people at Google, and a lot of smart people at Microsoft, more smart people outside both. So you will see a lot of innovation going on. And I would say this search thing is really just the beginning.

Next Page: China is a sudden hot spot for IT.

China is a Sudden

Hot Spot for IT">

But its so important from a business point of view. Whoever controls search today drives a lot of Web traffic. So its really very dynamic. Three years ago, no one, even Google, had figured out this business model. And now all of a sudden everybody is rushing into this space. And Microsoft realizes we cannot lose the battle. We have to fight back, at least to get one-third of the pie. So its a very exciting area nowadays.

Why is China now a hot spot for computer science and IT research? HP just opened a lab, IBMs had a lab here for 10 years, and you guys are here. Is there a certain expertise coming out of the universities?

Well, certainly the easiest explanation is the law of large numbers. My joke is we have 1.3 billion people so some of us better be smart. Thats one argument.

Another easy reason is the Chinese economy is doing pretty well, and all these multinational companies are rushing into China and figuring they better have a presence before its too late.

But you seem to be asking more about why do Chinese people actually have whatever talent or requirements necessary to do first-class research?


I would actually say yes. Part of the reason has a lot to do with the culture and the history. Remember what Confucius said. Confucius said: Nothing is more important than study. And in fact, Confucius said everything is a very low status except being a scholar. Being a scholar is so important. Thats why Chinese parents pressure their kids to get every degree, like a poster.

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So the Chinese culture really encourages people to study and get a college degree and graduate school degree. And I give a lot of credit to the Chinese government, especially the ministry of education.

China is still a very poor country, however, a lot of money is spent on education, with nine years of free education and they have extended the quota system so more and more kids can get into universities.

Another thing the government has done is for some high-tech areas like computer science and software, the government is willing to make extra bets. So for instance, four years ago the government decided to start 35 software colleges in top Chinese universities.

Thats when the Chinese government and Microsoft talked and Microsoft started a program with the Ministry of Education to put together something we call the Great Wall Plan. And this is to help to raise the level of research, with training of faculty and helping with students research.

But even more importantly, its to actually help China and these 35 software colleges to jumpstart the Chinese software industry based on what we have learned as a software company. That has gone very, very well. This year we completed the first phase. We recently signed the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] for the second phase with the Ministry of Education a month ago when my boss Rick Rashid was here.

And then there are some other intangibles like the Chinese students still work very hard—not as hard as when I was a kid, but they are doing fine. The environment encourages people to work hard, study hard and learn more.

There is no question that the people here realize we have to look up to the United States for the science and technology leadership. And still a lot of Chinese students go to the United States to study. But more and more Chinese scholars and researchers move back to China to either start their own business, work at universities or, like me, working in companies.

So the environment nowadays is so much better in my opinion than 10 years ago. So Im pretty bullish about the future of science and technology here.

Are there any trends or specific disciplines or areas that stand out?

There are some areas where China will catch up very quickly or potentially take the lead. One is in the area of wireless communication. This is because China leapfrogged the fixed line infrastructure. Now we have 380 million cell phone subscribers. So if you can deploy some technology to 10 percent of those people, thats 40 million already.

The other area that is a great opportunity for China to become a leader is the Internet. Because with the Internet, I think China has the second largest user base. Im pretty sure very soon well be number one. There are more than 105 million Internet users in China now.

Right. I was talking to a guy from one of the Chinese telcos and he was talking about how many DSL lines they have put in here.

Yes. Sometimes people criticize the Chinese government, but after I came back from India I started to realize that sometimes strong governments can do a lot of good things for the people.

You look at the lines, look at fibers. I know its up for argument, and Im not saying either way is absolutely right or wrong. But countries like China, if you ask the businesses and the poor people to negotiate and figure out what to do about things like fiber lines, it would be 15 years later.

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Another example is the highway. You would be very impressed if you travel from here to Shanghai. The quality of highways is definitely better than I-79 going from Pittsburgh to Erie, when I was a student there. The infrastructure is very important. The reason China has a chance to be one of the leaders in the world, and also in the Internet space, is that as more and more people get on they will come up with good ideas.

In terms of the work that goes on here, what is your target? Is it to ultimately productize the technology you create?

Microsoft Research has its own mission, which was defined 14 years ago by Rick Rashid and never been modified.

The first thing is to advance the state of the art in computer science. So any area we do we want to be the very best and advance the state of the art. Because we are fundamentally a basic research lab, and the basic research results we are happy to share with our colleagues. We are a very open and free research environment.

The second mission for us is to rapidly transfer technology into Microsoft products. That actually has two parts. One is to transfer technology into existing products, like the Tablet PC with our handwriting work and natural language work, and Windows and Office.

Because fundamentally we are an industrial research lab. Were not a university; were not a government lab, so we have to worry about the future of the company.

Next Page: New technologies in the pipeline.

New Technologies in the


So the second part of the second mission is whether we can come up with new products, new designs, new services that do not exist yet. That is the incubation of new products.

You mentioned technology in the pipeline, can you talk about any of that?

Ongoing, I can point out MSN. We are looking into things to help users do shopping. And that technology will be coming from us when it is all released.

Another good example thats even closer to announcement is Microsofts Ad Center. So the advertisements, the platform, a lot of that technology is from this lab here.

So the whole push toward a Live! focus for the company that Ray Ozzie is leading, are you guys playing a part in that?

I just had a meeting with Ray last week. The company is very fortunate to have Ray with us. And you can be assured that we will be very much involved and will contribute a lot of key technology to the company.

In an interview with eWEEK, Steve Ballmer said going forward Microsoft will be into the services model, subscriptions, advertisement driven content, and its traditional license sales. But its very early…. A: When you think about this business model thing … Microsoft has been so successful in the licensed software business for so long. And now all of a sudden we see a lot of change and a lot of challenges. First we have this open-source thing. Now you have the subscription model. Then you have this new thing called the advertised model. So as a company, Steve is certainly the authority to say whats going on.

My personal view is this. I think these different models will have to coexist for awhile. And, after all, Windows brings so much money and the model works. And of course were looking at how we can continue and grow that business.

But its probably going to be slow, realistically. Then you have this new advertised model. And for Microsoft we havent even really gotten seriously involved yet. We have MSN working very successfully so far, but we should grab for even more. So the company now realizes that we have this Windows model—the base OS underneath, the licensed software model.

On top of that we have something Ray Ozzie and Bill Gates call Live, Windows Live! that you can add as a service there with a user participating in that space. Now you go there and we can give you free services, funded by advertisement.

So were trying to find this boundary where we can continue to sell licensed software, where we can get new business with advertisement. So were still figuring it out. Ray Ozzie is heading that up. I just had an hour meeting with him … and I see him again in February. He will visit us early next spring.

MSR will no doubt be in the center of the action.

What is unique about the research situation here in Beijing?

Mostly, we are part of Microsoft Research so we do very similar things to Microsoft Research in Redmond, where I began my research career 10 years ago. But we do have some special and unique characteristics in the lab here, and its mostly because of the people.

The situation here is very, very different. When we started this seven years ago, and even today, its very hard to attract senior people to move to Beijing. And being a very good company man, I got this job so I just moved. But its very hard to attract, whether its American, Canadian or Chinese, to move to Beijing with a family.

So out of necessity we built a team with not too many senior leaders in academic research, but with lots of young, energetic and passionate researchers we found here in China. So it turns out to be a pretty good combination.

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And since the lab is relatively young and passionate about technology, we believe we can do a lot of things within the company, deliver innovation to our customers and really change the world.

We have done a number of things over the last seven years and a couple of things I feel particularly proud of. One is how quickly we have built this first-class research team. You can see the evidence in the first class publication of research papers in scientific journals and conference papers.

The second thing, and I really feel very proud about this, is the number of technology transfers we have done with the company. We have delivered technology into Windows, Office, MSN, Xbox, mobile phones. The last time we counted we had about 120 technologies to come out of this lab and find their way into Microsoft products, from Xbox to soon-to-be-released Windows Vista. And we have more than 40 technologies in the pipeline ready to be transferred.

I just talked to the head of Yahoo research in Mountain View. He was saying he can really appreciate how difficult it is to do technology transfers, and especially this large number of technology transfers that we have done.

The third thing that I think is really unique about this lab is how much we have contributed to the higher education system here in China. A very good example is the number of interns who have gone through training in our lab.

The last time we counted we already had more than 2,000—graduate students mostly—that have gone through our internship program.

We need more and more talented engineers and scientists, not just in China, but the whole world. We need more talented, smart kids getting into computer science, electrical engineering and Internet software.

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