Microsoft Shows Some Technologies of the Future

Among the new research projects is Collaborative Web Search, which includes SearchTogether, an Internet Explorer plugin that puts a sidebar into the browser for collaboration on multiple computers.

REDMOND-Microsoft Research is hosting its annual TechFest at its campus here this week, and is striving to show how the innovations and technologies being developed by its researchers are of interest to a wide range of people, including Hollywood celebrities.

As part of the media and analyst event March 4, Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief strategy and research officer, hosted a conversation with Alan Alda, the host of Scientific American Frontiers and a star of the television series M*A*S*H fame.

When introducing Alda, who is very interested in technology, Mundie jokingly said that he had agreed to help him with all his computer problems, which Alda quipped were "not very many," before expressing his awe at the World-Wide Telescope, which allows individuals to tour the stars and planets, and then share this with others.

Alda asked Mundie why Microsoft undertook some of its research projects, which had nothing to do with its products, to which Mundie responded that its research primarily fell into three categories: those that enhanced the products it has today; those that created new products in new fields; and those that responded to issues at large or that were competitive.

"But in the last few years, Microsoft had taken some of the company's assets to help the global society at large, as many of these issues cannot be addressed at scale without the help of software and computing and without the help of all the major multinational companies," he said.

One of Microsoft's attributes was that it was "very persistent," Mundie said, adding that change often took 15 years or more and Microsoft was patient and willing to wait until this emerged.

He was also pushed by Alda as to whether the company would continue to fund research even if it would not turn into a new business or become a technology that could be used in one of its products.

Mundie said there was no universal answer to that, but added that the company could hand over that kind of work to others so that it could be moved forward.

During his keynote address, Rick Rashid, the senior vice president of Microsoft Research, said he was resistant to doing the first TechFest event, but after he was persuaded he was amazed at the results, particularly from Microsoft's own staff, who told him it made them feel proud of the company and the long-term investments it was making.

Microsoft also believed that, to be effective, critical mass was important. "We also believe in working openly and publishing our work, as you have to subject your work to external peer review," he said.

Very talented people were also attracted to the company, he said, adding that there were 300 PhD interns at the company in 2006, which was significant given that there were just 1,500 computer science PhD graduates in 2006.

Microsoft Research also had a strong history of success in moving its new technologies into products, including Windows Sidebar, Network Map, and Windows Media Photo in Windows Vista; and search relevance ranking improvements, speller improvements, and the Ribbon user interface in Office 2007, as well as the smart chart labels in Excel.

Some 25 percent of Microsoft's patents are generated out of Microsoft Research, which is also "an early warning system of new areas across a broad range of technologies. We say things like -hey, this Internet search thing could be big someday, but people don't always listen to us,'" Rashid said to laughter.

Microsoft made Singularity, a research operating system prototype extending programming languages and developing new techniques and tools for specifying and verifying program behavior, available to the academic and research community at no charge March 4.

Among the new research projects demoed during the keynote was Collaborative Web Search, which includes SearchTogether, an Internet Explorer plug-in that puts a sidebar into the browser for collaboration on multiple computers.

SearchTogether allows a user to invite any of their IM buddies to join them in joint research, which gives both parties access to all search queries already done by the other party.

A special search technique, Split Search, distributes half of the search results from any query to each of the collaborators, ensuring no redundancy in what they are looking at. A special feature known as Peak and Follow also lets one person see what the other is currently looking at.

Then there is CoSearch, designed for collaborative searching on a single computer. It allows a person using a mobile phone to control the cursor on a computer screen to click a link and transfer the result to the phone, even as the people using the PC follow a different link.