A peek at Microsoft's secret goodies

From Zero Defect Programming to Boku, a programming game for kids, Microsoft Research is devoted to IT innovation. So how do current projects stack up?

Every year, Microsoft creates the equivalent of a major university computer science department,according to Rick Rashid. He is the former Carnegie Mellon University professor who founded and runs Microsoft Research, which has 750 researchers and is still growing fast.

MSR already operates research labs in Seattle, Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Bangalore and Beijing, and there is international competition to be the location of the next one.

Microsoft does not divulge how much all this costs. It must be well over £50m a year, but it is buried in Microsoft's R&D spending, which came to about £3bn in 2006. Given Microsoft's turnover, it is not much more than a rounding error.

Of course, that does not stop people asking whether MSR delivers value for money, however TechFest 07 provided some indication.

TechFest is an annual event, held on the Redmond campus, where Microsoft Research staff get to show their wares to about 7,000 local software developers. This is particularly important for researchers who work more than 5,000 miles from the mothership.

Usually TechFest is for internal consumption only. However, this year, to celebrate MSR's 15th anniversary, Microsoft invited more than 70 journalists and bloggers from as far afield as India, Australia and Russia. There were also a few representatives from US government agencies such as the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency.

What we got was a "day zero" before the real TechFest kicked off. We got to see about half of the promised innovations, and missed the lecture series entirely.

This began with Zero Defect Programming and ended with Enabling Small and Informal Businesses in India, via subjects such as HIV vaccine design and the P versus NP question.

But journalists and bloggers found plenty to write about. Popular demos included Boku, a 3D game intended to teach programming to very young children HD View, for handling multi-gigapixel images Mix, a search-based authoring system and Andy Wilson's Play­together surface computing system, where you could drive virtual cars across a real tabletop.

The UK display - which included Shoebox (digital photo storage), Text2Paper (a label printer for SMS messages), Text-It Notes (Post-It notes to SMS via handwriting recognition software) and Bubbleboard (a visual answer machine) - got lots of coverage.

During his TechFest opening speech, Rashid also revealed another significant factor. MSR runs the IT industry's largest PhD internship programme, with more than 800 students working inMicrosoft labs.

Last year in the US it had 300 PhD interns, so a very large proportion of America's best computer students spent a summer finding out that it could be fun to work on innovative research at Microsoft.

One of Microsoft's problems is that the top talent now sees Google as a much more attractive place to work. MSR provides a way of finding and hoovering up some of the best before they get seduced away to sunny California.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at The Guardian

Click for more on TechFest

Comment on this article: computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk


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