Sometimes I think I know how Microsoft feels. It’s the older, more well-established guy living and working amongst a bunch of scruffy, young startup types who have big ideas, take huge risks and are the embodiment of cool.
When I asked people on Twitter to describe Microsoft and four other tech companies (Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter) with just one word, Apple and Twitter were lavished with terms like Innovative, Sexy, Informative, Superior, Fun and even Innocent. Microsoft didn’t fare as well. Old was a common theme, as was Stodgy, Boring, and even Dying.
Some of this is fair. Microsoft has been around since the ’70s while Facebook and Twitter launched after the start of the new millennium, so it is old by current startup standards (Instagram and Pinterest are just a couple of years old). Perhaps Microsoft did rest for too long on its dominant OS market share (Microsofties are only too willing to admit past mistakes). Apple, though, is just as old as Microsoft, and has been through its share of trouble (it barely survived the 1990s). Yet, it’s seen as Ground Breaking and Chic.
I get it — maybe Microsoft is not cool, but I’m not so sure it’s stodgy, and it’s definitely not dying.
More Like Facebook Than You Think
Walking the halls of Microsoft’s sprawling campus (many buildings, multiple locations), you’re struck not by an uptight atmosphere, but by how similar it is to other tech companies. The walls are covered in art, meeting notes and interface ideas (they have a lot of marker-friendly walls). Virtually every building has a vast commons area where co-workers hang out and hash out ideas. There are ping-pong and even pool tables (though I rarely saw anyone using them). There are bicycles everywhere, electric car ports and Microsoft minivan transportation. I saw in-house coffee shops and, while there’s no free lunch, all the drinks are free.
The Microsoft you don’t know, however, is nowhere more in evidence than in Microsoft Research. It’s a 20-year-old group where some of Microsoft’s most interesting — dare we say edgiest — ideas percolate and sometimes come to fruition. No, it’s not where the company builds Windows 8, but it could be the place where some of Windows 8’s biggest innovations begin. It was not the birthplace of Xbox 360, but Kinect had its germination there.
Edgy for Microsoft does not necessarily mean black hair, torn clothing and nose rings. It’s more about the bleeding edge of technology, stuff (like Microsoft Surface 2.0) that makes us mere mortals say, “wow.” Microsoft Research’s 850 Ph.D. researchers (300 in Redmond and the rest spread around the world), are working on some amazing innovations. Take for example, the Beamatron, an augmented reality mash-up of Kinect, a computer running a gaming physics engine, a projector and a theatrical motorized light system. It uses Kinect to create a 3D map of the room, including objects and people in it, and then renders and projects objects (cars, presentations) that appear to interact with the real-world room. I drove a virtual car around the room and used the Beamatron to “hold” a PowerPoint presentation in my hand and then transfer it from one hand to another as if it was a ball.
That doesn’t sound particularly like “yesterday’s” technology.
24 year Microsoft vet and Microsoft Research General Manager Kevin Schofield told me Microsoft Research is also focused, at least in part, on “solving big problems” like the HIV virus.
Medical Research would seem an odd fit for Microsoft, but the research group is filled with all kinds of experts, including a couple of MDs. One of them is also a computer scientist and became fascinated with how doctors make crucial decisions in high-pressure situations when they have incomplete information (think emergency room visits). This led to work in machine learning (Microsoft Research does a lot of work in this area), which uses what’s known to figure out the unknown. Spam filters work this way. They can look at email and if the word “Viagra” is in it, decide with some degree of certainty that it’s spam. Now, that research is being applied to HIV vaccine research.
The HIV virus is known for its tendency to mutate, which makes it hard for people to develop an immunity. A spam-like filter can find the known in the unknown — in this case the core, recognizable virus.
I asked Schofield, who began his carrier at Microsoft in the OS group, if Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates used the legendary Bell Labs as a model for Microsoft Research. “At a 30,000 foot level,” Schofield said, “Bell Labs was the model, but on the ground it was more Carnegie Mellon.” There are, apparently, two styles of research lab: The Xerox Parc model, where you isolate research from the business and the other model, where you basically have business fund and drive research. Both approaches can hinder tech transfer. The second method, in particular, said Schofield, tends to guide research too strongly so that most of the work is spent delivering product enhancements. Schofield said Microsoft took the middle road.
Microsoft Research’s building is right in the heart of the campus, but the work is not guided solely by business imperatives. The best way to understand how Microsoft Research really works is to understand Schofield’s approach to tech transfer. It’s not, he said, a Rube Goldberg process where you “turn the crank and a product pops out…. It’s not a machine process, it’s a social process.”
Schofield went throughout Microsoft, finding the product managers with the best social and communication skills. He then paired them up with Microsoft Research team members. Product managers talk about the problems they’re struggling with. It’s not unusual for a Microsoft Researcher to realize the company already has a solution, likely developed for something else or simply because someone wanted to try it.
Choose Your Project
This serendipitous tech transfer is one of the reasons researchers pick and pursue their own projects. Yet, even as these researchers do work on oddball innovations such as Beamatron, wearable Kinect sensors (to project a map in front of you of where you need to go), HIV Spam filters, and new cinemagraph techniques, they’re not working in a vacuum. Even back in the early days, Bill Gates would wander the halls, and there would be “random Bill sightings.” Later, when Gates had to spend more time on bigger picture projects, he and current CEO Steve Ballmer would have regular meetings with Microsoft Research. The yearly TechFest is designed to showcase 15 or so key demos from Microsoft Research, and to spark more conversations.
Like any true research facility, Microsoft Research has its share of duds. I asked Schofield if there was a room where Microsoft Research keeps its failed experiments. “Failures would be a big room,” Schofield said, laughing. But he also counts some of those failures among Microsoft Research’s successes.
“You build a blob of what’s possible and what’s not possible outside. The blog keeps expanding out as you figure out how to do more and more, but knowing where the fence is is a useful thing. So we learn a lot from failures.”
Does all this experimentation, trial and error and the creation new and sometimes important discoveries make Microsoft younger and sexier? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s hard to deny that you might want to add one more word to describe the tech giant: relevant.
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