Minds of Microsoft

You might expect Microsoft Research to concern itself with the next version of Office, and you'd be right. But an AIDS vaccine?

There's a joke at Microsoft Research that designing the next version of Microsoft Office is like ordering pizza for 100 million people. No matter how you do it, a few million of them are going to complain.

But Microsoft Research (MSR) General Manager Kevin Schofield shrugs off the difficulty of designing technology for mass markets. "It's our job to understand user differences," he says.

Microsoft Research (MSR) General Manager Kevin Schofield

Microsoft Research (MSR) General Manager Kevin SchofieldThe research arm of Microsoft Corp. devotes considerable resources to the job. It has 750 researchers in 67 functional groups, from algorithms to wireless, in six labs, from Redmond, Wash., to Beijing. Schofield calls MSR "the world's largest computer science department."

Indeed, the scope of activities within MSR is stunning. A lot of the research is what you might expect, with computer scientists dreaming up a new widget for mobile communication, a new search algorithm aimed at topping Google or some new way to make Windows more secure. But MSR also engages in long-term fundamental research that might never produce revenue.

For example, it is working with several medical labs on the application of pattern-matching algorithms -- which it developed to recognize spam -- to the design of AIDS vaccines. "The reason that HIV is so resistant to our immune system is because it gets in a host and throws off many new mutations, so your body can't get a good, robust immunity to it," Schofield says. That's the sort of strategy used by spammers. A trial vaccine based on Microsoft's algorithms has just begun in vitro testing.

Tortoise or Hare?

Critics have said that Microsoft has been slow to respond to competition, such as open-source alternatives to its products and to upstart companies like Google. But Schofield says the company's huge research resources give it extraordinary agility. He says Microsoft, as a matter of policy, won't bid on government research projects -- such as those funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- because they would tend to lock the company into a slow pace of research in certain areas. (He concedes that Microsoft doesn't need the money.)

As an example of Microsoft's agility, Schofield points to the company's development of its Web search engine, MSN Search. Two years ago, Microsoft outsourced search to Inktomi Corp., but it concluded that to survive against the likes of Google and Yahoo, it had to build its own search engine. The search developers immediately turned to MSR, Schofield says. "They knocked at our door and said, 'We are about to start a sprint; come help us.' Our research team said, 'Wow, we have a lot of work to do, but we know how to crawl, we know how to index information, we know the user experience for search, and so on.' We pulled out 35 to 40 researchers from across those areas, across all our labs, and 12 months later, we launched an Internet-scale search engine."

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