Sun Labs Looks at Search, Online Games

At the Labs' facilities in Massachusetts and California, researchers work on technologies they hope will eventually make it into commercial products.

BURLINGTON, Mass.—Sun Microsystems spends about $2 billion a year in research and development, touching on everything from its SPARC and x86 server lines to its Solaris operating system to its storage devices and Java development offering.

About 10 percent of that R&D money goes to the companys labs, where researchers pursue different projects with the goal that parts or all of what they develop will find their way into commercial products, according to Robert Sproull, vice president and Sun Fellow at Sun Labs.

"We and our industry depend on a lot of basic innovation," Sproull said.

The Labs 150 or so engineers are usually working on several dozen projects at one time, both here and at the other location in Menlo Park, Calif.

In early December, Sproull and other engineers gave several journalists and analysts a peak at some of the projects being worked on by the Labs group, and ways the technology could be put to use in the enterprise.

The projects now are in the prototype stage, and theres no guarantee they will progress beyond that. But like the prototype cars automakers unveil every year, some of this technology most likely will find its way into commercial products.

Two of the projects focus on developing better search engines. Steve Green, principle investigator in Sun Labs Advanced Search Technologies group, said that about 85 percent of information generated by businesses is unstructured, and that knowledge workers spend about 25 percent of their time looking for information.

The goal of Greens project is to make search technology more effective.

Using Amazon as an example, Green pointed out that, when a customer orders a book, Amazons search engine tells the customer the titles of other books that other customers have ordered with that same book. The problem, Green said, is that because two books were bought at the same time doesnt mean that theyre similar.

The search engine hes working on would use particular key words to link books together, leading to a greater likelihood of a closer match. Applying that same idea to searches of business data in an enterprise could make it easier to find information, he and Sproull said.

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"The whole goal of search technology is to reduce the amount of categorizing," Sproull said.

Paul Lamere, another principle investigator, is using that same idea in his Search Inside the Music project. The goal is to make it easier for users to search through the massive number of songs stored on such devices as iPods and cell phones, Lamere said.

The technology finds similarities in songs—from structure to instruments—so that a user can more easily cluster similar music together.

The prototype developed by Lamere offers a variety of visuals, one that looks like multi-colored stars floating in space. The different colors represent different musical genres, from rap to country to rock to classical, and users can click on a dot and see the song and album art.

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