Microsoft recently held an event at Microsoft Research Cambridge, inviting thought leaders and innovators from business and bringing them together with our own 100-strong team of researchers. Filling the labs auditorium and seminar rooms, it was in itself, an experiment in creative cross-pollination.
Founded in 1997, the lab’s mission focuses on leading-edge research that advances the state of the art in computer science so that it can develop technology to transfer to the Microsoft business and help lead Microsoft into the future. But it’s not a product-development facility; as you’d expect from a lab based in Cambridge, it works closely with academia.
The role of innovation
According to Clay Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, large companies like Microsoft run the risk of being out-innovated by new market entrants who are not focused on optimising existing products. Instead, start-ups can focus on breakthrough technology that disrupts whole markets.
The pace of change is accelerating. As Rob Fraser, CTO of Cloud Services remarked, “S&P 500 companies have a half-life of seven years.” In other words, half of them won’t be in the list by the end of the decade, replaced by more successful companies.
Research and development labs like Microsoft Research Cambridge are the natural response. They turn a big company’s resources into breakthrough innovations such as the Kinect motion sensing input device and the advert prediction algorithm used in Bing, both products of the Cambridge lab.
Academic links are very valuable. Consider the central role of Stanford University in Silicon Valley or MIT on the East coast. In fact, MIT as a whole “has generated nearly half as many entrepreneurial spin-offs as the entire UK university sector,” according to a 1998 report by McKinsey. Cambridge is establishing itself as a similar hub for innovative companies.
Pure research, serendipity and competitive advantage
The body part recognition software in Kinect evolved out of research in a completely different field and it’s a great example of the way that pure academic research can filter into the commercial world. Cross-fertilisation with academia has direct benefits for Microsoft.
According to lab director Andrew Blake, Microsoft Research has influenced virtually every product that Microsoft has shipped and some have gone on to be huge successes. For example, Kinect has gone on to sell 18m units.
Another example of profitable serendipity are the algorithms developed by Microsoft to analyse big data. They were tested on historical chess match results and the by-product of the research was eight lines of magic code that drives Xbox Live’s player-matching technology. This tiny code fragment (and the deep thought behind it) is the secret sauce in Xbox Live. It makes the difference between a challenging game against a similarly-skilled opponent or an unsatisfying defeat or walkover.
It may seem counter-intuitive when everyone is trying to cut costs but in a recession, investing in R&D can be the smart move. A McKinsey study of the 1990-91 recession found that companies that the companies which invested in acquisition, R&D and advertising during the tough times emerged ahead of their competitors who cut back.
Four technologies to watch
At the event, researchers gave in-depth presentations about different projects at the lab. They are interesting in their own right but they are also prophets for future changes in IT.
These talks were backed up by hands-on demos. Out of dozens, four in particulate stood out as examples of ways this new technology could impact real products.
These highlights and common threads were only a subset of what we saw in November but they show the breadth and focus of Microsoft’s research. They also point to big innovations in IT that will soon affect businesses and consumers.
More information: http://research.microsoft.com
To talk to the MS Horizons team, email: MS_Horizons@microsoft.com
To find out more about how Microsoft technology is supporting innovation in the Enterprise visit www.microsoft.com/en-gb/business/enterprise
By Tim Cozze-YoungMicrosoft Enterprise Team