In 1991, Microsoft Corporation became the first software company to create its own computer-science research organization. Microsoft Research has developed into a unique entity among corporate research labs, balancing an open academic model with an effective process for transferring its research to product-development teams. Microsoft recognizes that to create the foundation for future technology breakthroughs, it is necessary to maintain independence from product groups, which enables Microsoft Research to focus on long-term (10-15 years out) computer-science research and vision that is not bound by product cycles. Today, the world-renowned scientists of Microsoft Research constitute one of the largest, fastest-growing, and most highly respected software-research organizations in the world—one that will help define and redefine the computing experience for millions of people for decades to come.
The Goals of Microsoft Research
“We’re focusing more on research than ever. We’re building the technology that will enable computers to see, listen, speak, and learn so people can interact with them as naturally as they interact with other people.” — Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect
For 15 years, Microsoft Research has been pivotal in helping fulfill Microsoft’s evolving vision for the future of computing: a new era of personal, business, and intellectual communication supported by computers that are always available, vastly easier to use, and far more powerful than those of today.
The computers of tomorrow will employ a unified interface that moves transparently between smart devices, software, and systems that people use, forming a connected, unified system that works on their behalf and under their control, and creating an environment of seamless computing. Seamless computing enhances personal and business connections through rich communication and powerful, flexible collaboration tools; helps diverse technologies, groups and organizations work together; and is flexible and intuitive enough to adapt to the ways people and companies want to work.
People are beginning to rely less on typed text as they gain the freedom to interact with computers in more natural ways, such as by using voice, handwriting, and touch. Microsoft envisions a time when people’s personal and business information will be stored securely on the Internet, synchronized automatically and available instantly to them—anytime, anyplace, and on any device.
The industry has made amazing progress in recent years, but many underlying challenges remain to be solved before technology is as interactive and interconnected as Microsoft’s vision entails. Microsoft Research is dedicated to solving these challenges in a number of ways:
Looking 10-15 years beyond current product-development cycles to identify and invent key technologies that will shape users’ experiences in the future.
Collaborating with the entire research community to advance the state of the art in each area of computer science.
Maintaining an informal atmosphere in which researchers freely share their short-term results with Microsoft product-development groups and help incorporate the latest innovations into the company’s products
Building relationships with key universities worldwide to enhance teaching and learning experiences, inspire technological innovation, and strengthen computer-science and engineering education
Continuously recruiting world-class researchers from a diversity of backgrounds—psychologists and sociologists to anthropologists and mathematicians—to find answers to computer science’s grand challenges. This mixture of the social and the technical strikes the right balance for the delivery of game-changing innovation.
Current research projects range from inventing more intuitive, productive ways of interacting with computers to improving programming languages, enhancing software-development tools, and applying sophisticated mathematical theories to as-yet-unsolved computational challenges. No matter what end of the spectrum they inhabit, all Microsoft Research projects focus on advancing the state of the art in computing, from increasing programmers’ productivity and helping enterprises operate more efficiently to enriching people’s experiences with technology at work and at home.
Breakthroughs, Large and Small
While some people believe that being innovative or making a breakthrough means “getting there first,” Microsoft takes a much broader view. A technology breakthrough or innovation can take years to evolve, and its impact may not be fully realized until years later—as in the case of Internet technology or even e-mail. Microsoft believes that a combination of invention and popularization makes a technology or product innovative, so today’s researchers must have the freedom to advance computer science and invent new technologies over the long term.
Microsoft researchers work across more than 55 disciplines in an atmosphere with minimal bureaucracy and broad opportunities to exchange ideas. Although most of them pursue long-term goals that extend far beyond current product cycles, they also work closely with other groups at Microsoft to transfer knowledge and help turn their discoveries into functional offerings. Nearly every Microsoft product in the marketplace today — including Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT), Xbox 360, Xbox Live, Windows Server™ 2003, Office 2003, MSN® 8, SQL Server™, Windows® XP, Office XP, and Windows Media® Player 9 Series—has been influenced by Microsoft Research. Occasionally, researchers involved with a project even transfer to the product-development group to assist as their initial ideas take shape.
No matter how far-reaching or abstract their projects might be, Microsoft researchers consistently strive for results that eventually will solve computer science’s grand challenges. In many cases, their results are shared and applied across multiple research areas. Examples of the challenges Microsoft Research is dedicated to solving and some of the current projects that target these challenges:
Making Computers Easier to Use and Better Able to Understand the User
Users’ interactions with technology would be much more natural if they could speak directly to a computer and write directly on the screen instead of being limited to the technical language of a PC or a handheld device. Microsoft researchers are enabling computers to interpret their surroundings more accurately and, as a result, to understand better and thereby assist in what he/she intends to do.
Examples of this research:
Machine learning: The goal of this research is to enable computers to do a better job of understanding users and tasks, and to do a much better job of managing information, computing resources, assistance, and user attention.
Natural language processing and speech recognition: Designing computer systems that can analyze, understand, and generate languages that humans use naturally is intended, eventually, to enable users to talk with a computer as though communicating with another person.
Vision technology: Projects that range from image-based rendering and animation to human tracking and 3-D scene reconstruction will be important components of future user interfaces.
Telepresence: This research focuses on enabling computer users to feel as if they or others are present at an event—even while they are physically in another place or time—through the use of digital media such as video, audio, images, and animation.
Helping Developers Improve Software, Reduce Costs and Go to Market Faster
Issues of performance, quality, manageability, and productivity are crucial to developers as they strive to create software in an increasingly complex, competitive market. Microsoft Research is inventing new programming tools, methodologies, and techniques to help developers meet the challenges of building better software, bringing it to customers faster, and offering it at lower prices.
Key projects supporting research in this area include:
Development tools: This research is aimed at advancing the design, the development, the debugging, and the testing of software in ways that enable programmers to be more creative, imaginative, and productive.
Programming principles and tools: Formal techniques and models are being developed for understanding programs, programming abstractions, and languages.
Software engineering: Improving the methods, notation, and tool support for high-level system design and analysis are the goals of this research.
Improving How Systems Store, Retrieve, and Present Information
Business and personal technology users alike rely on an ever-growing sea of data from the Internet, e-mail, business transactions, and other sources to conduct their daily lives. As computers become capable of storing greater volumes of data, they also require increasingly intelligent tools for protecting, extracting, and analyzing that information. From there, users also expect the systems to present the data faster, more intuitively, and in a wider variety of formats. Computer scientists at Microsoft Research are exploring ways to design operating systems, architectures, and components that can meet these demands, as well as those of the future.
Related Microsoft Research projects include:
Data exploration, mining, and management: This work is geared toward exploring richer, more flexible ways to interact with stored information, as well as making database systems self-tuning and self-administering to reduce the total cost of ownership.
Cryptography and anti-piracy: Projects include researching new encoding methods and applications to enhance privacy and security, working with standards bodies to develop security protocols, and providing internal security consulting on Microsoft products.
Hardware devices: Highlights of this research include experimenting with new forms of mobile computing, such as wearable computers, and sensor technologies that give mobile devices a greater awareness of their surroundings.
Exploring and Solving Tomorrow’s Most Complex Computing Problems
Even a casual glance at the progress of computing over the past 30 years—from early mainframe systems that filled an entire room to today’s PCs that fit in a shirt pocket and powerful Web servers that can process millions of page requests per second—shows how rapidly the boundaries of technology are expanding. But many significant challenges remain in such areas as safeguarding computer networks from break-ins, creating software that can accurately execute spoken commands, and enabling computers to convert signals—whether from a human or from another machine—into useful information.
Microsoft Research tackles some of the toughest problems in computer technology through its efforts in:
Algorithms and other mathematical methods: Microsoft Research is devising novel formulas and procedures to advance the state of the art in such areas as natural language processing, speech recognition, handwriting recognition, and time-series prediction.
Theory: Researchers apply the principles of mathematics, statistical physics, theoretical computer science, and other disciplines to probe the limits of computational speed, and of problem-solving and decision-making capabilities.
Enhancing Alliances with Microsoft Product Groups Through Applied Research
Unlike basic research, which is geared toward visionary discoveries that may or may not end up in actual products, and product development, which is feature-focused and geared toward solving tactical engineering problems, applied research studies the relationship and the applicability of theories or principles to the solution of a problem or an actual product or service.
Microsoft Research recently formed two collaborative lab efforts with the MSN product team with goals of assisting innovation and rapidly creating prototypes of cutting-edge technologies:
Live Labs: Live Labs is a dedicated group of researchers from MSN and Microsoft Research that will work with researchers across Microsoft and the academic research community. Live Labs will focus on Internet-centric applied-research programs, including rapidly prototyping and launching of emerging technologies, incubating entirely new inventions, and improving and accelerating Windows Live™ offerings. This complements the company’s continuing deep investment in basic research at Microsoft Research and in product development at MSN.
AdLab. The Microsoft adCenter Incubation Lab (adLab) is a joint effort between MSN’s adCenter and Microsoft Research to form a state-of-the-art lab in Beijing with a mission to research and incubate advanced technologies for MSN’s adCenter, designed to improve advertisers with rich targeting capabilities. Early incubation projects include ad bar-code readers, social-network mining, and video and large-display ads.
Fostering Innovation in Academia
Launched eight years ago, Microsoft Research External Research & Programs (formerly known as University Relations) has recognized since its inception the inherent value of the academic research community and the need for collaboration between academia and industry to advance state-of-the-art computer science. The foundation for all External Research & Programs efforts is respect for the “virtuous cycle” created when university and industry researchers work together closely.
For academia, Microsoft has an important role to play in helping university researchers set the research agenda by communicating real-world issues and concerns, and by helping universities provide training that prepares students for the job market. Microsoft also offers assistance in the form of tools, technology, and financial support. The benefits academia offers to the industry are equally important: Universities are a fundamental source for independent, original research and a critical training ground for the talented young men and women who will create tomorrow’s technology.
New Programs and Initiatives to Meet the Changing Needs of Academia
Through ongoing dialogue with colleagues in academia, Microsoft has gained important insights that are helping External Research & Programs refine its mission and develop new programs that will deepen relationships and strengthen the benefits to both parties.
One result of that dialogue is a concerted effort to expand the range of contacts between Microsoft Research and the academic world. In the past, External Research & Programs has concentrated on working with faculty and students from a relatively small group of the world’s top academic institutions. By expanding programs to a much broader set of schools, External Research & Programs unearths opportunities for Microsoft to work with researchers who are doing innovative research and would like to develop a new collaborative relationship.
Support takes a number of forms. Microsoft will provide research and curriculum-development grants through an open request-for-proposal model. External Research & Programs also sponsors workshops and symposia, continues to develop research tool kits, and supports efforts to expand the Microsoft Curriculum Repository. In addition, External Research & Programs launched the Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellowship Award and expanded the Microsoft Research intern program.
Initiatives to Foster Technical Innovation
Working closely with colleagues at colleges and universities across the globe, External Research & Programs has identified three key domains in which support from Microsoft is likely to enable university researchers to achieve the greatest progress: the emerging computing environment, transformation of science through computing, and advancing computer-science curricula. Within each area, specific initiatives will serve as the framework for Microsoft’s efforts to support research.
The Emerging Computing Environment: With computing becoming increasingly pervasive at work and in people’s personal lives, a thoughtful, informed approach to technology development and the implications of that technology is increasingly important. Initiatives for fiscal year 2006 include programming systems, computational science, digital inclusion, Trustworthy Computing, and technology-enabled solutions to improve teaching and learning.
Transformation of Science Through Computing: Across the sciences, computation has become a central tool in the discovery process, enabling deeper collection and analysis of data while democratizing access to that data. Specific initiatives include e-science and bioinformatics.
Advancing Computer-Science Curricula: Industry’s needs sometimes outpace computer-science curricula. External Research & Programs works with faculty members to accelerate curriculum development, ensuring that it remains state-of-the-art, and works with educators to enhance student learning by carefully and thoughtfully introducing technology into classrooms and other learning environments. Initiatives in this area include software engineering, technology-enhanced classrooms, robotics, gaming, and Trustworthy Computing.
Extending Support to the International Community
Another important component of the new direction Microsoft Research is taking is an emphasis on international programs. Microsoft has its External Research & Programs group in Redmond, Wash.,; its External Research Office in Cambridge, U.K.; and its University Relations group in Beijing; each focused on local concerns of research and teaching communities in their respective regions. In addition, the Redmond group provides direct programmatic support for Latin America and India. Microsoft Research looks forward to making these groups as international and diverse as the academic community itself.
Building a Global Think Tank
Microsoft Research has more than 700 employees, including some of the world’s finest computer scientists, sociologists, psychologists, mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. While most of its researchers are based at Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters, Microsoft Research has expanded globally to ensure that it can attract the richest pool of talent. Microsoft Research currently operates labs in four additional locations:
Microsoft Research Asia: The Beijing lab was founded in 1998. As with the other Microsoft Research labs, the talents of its researchers will largely guide the research focus of the Beijing lab. More than 150 researchers are developing next-generation multimedia applications and Asia-specific computing technologies such as adapted user interfaces and language-conversion systems.
Microsoft Research Cambridge: Research at the facility in Cambridge encompasses programming languages, security, information retrieval, operating systems, and networking. Established in July 1997, the lab has grown to more than 80 researchers.
Microsoft Research Lab India Private Ltd.: Opening in January 2005, Microsoft Research India’s mission is to conduct basic and applied research in computer science and to develop innovative solutions based on societal and cultural needs. The lab focuses on multilingual systems, technologies for emerging markets, geographical-information systems, sensor networks, and software productivity.
Microsoft Research Silicon Valley: Established in August 2001 on the Microsoft campus in Mountain View, Calif., the lab employs more than 25 researchers who focus on distributed computing, including privacy, security, resource location, protocols, the Internet as a platform, reliability, availability, scalability, management, and related theory.