, November 5, 1998 — Beijing. The name alone conjures up gilded images of the Forbidden City, of centuries-old palaces and shrines juxtaposed against a modern, cosmopolitan center of commerce, industry, and higher learning.
It is in this city of contrasts that Microsoft this week announced the opening of its second international research facility, to be known as Microsoft Research, China, or MSR China.
The new facility, which will officially begin operations in January, will conduct advanced, long-term research in speech recognition and other interface enhancements that will simplify computer use. Kai-Fu Lee, who joined Microsoft in July, is the managing director of MSR China. Lee is internationally recognized for his groundbreaking work in speech recognition, multimedia, and Internet technologies.
“In order for computing to be truly pervasive, software-both for the PC and for Windows CE-based devices-has to become a lot easier to use,” he said. “I believe in applying the increasing central processing unit (CPU) and bandwidth capabilities to this ease-of-use challenge. Microsoft Research envisions a much simpler computing experience by developing more natural interfaces like speech, language, handwriting, gesture, and face recognition.”
Top Talent Guides Research Agenda
As with the company’s Redmond, Wash. San Francisco and Cambridge, United Kingdom research facilities, Lee expects that MSR China will hire the best and brightest Ph.D. recipients from around the world. These individuals, along with a senior leadership team, will largely determine the direction of future research.
No matter what paths of exploration ultimately prevail, one thing is certain: The facility will focus on simplifying computer usage worldwide, with emphasis on computing challenges in Asia, and more specifically, China.
Today, the complexity of the Chinese language, which contains more than 5,000 distinct symbols, greatly inhibits computer usage. “I believe that multimodal and two-handed input methods that involve speech, pen and existing or new input devices can improve the Chinese input problem,” Lee said.
Looking forward, those improvements will be vital in order to nurture the burgeoning interest in computer hardware and software in China. Despite PC usage obstacles, the nation still ranks as one of the world’s fastest-growing computer markets. A recent study revealed that in the first half of 1998, more than 1.5 million PCs were sold in mainland China, and PC shipments are projected to mushroom to 8.3 million in 2000.
Moreover, many believe China will eventually become the world’s largest economy. “An indigenous facility is particularly appropriate,” Lee said, “because researchers in China can better understand the requirements of the Chinese user, and build technologies that make PC and software usage more pervasive during, not after, the rapid expansion of the Chinese market.”
Collaborative Efforts to Promote Future Innovations
Microsoft’s emphasis on longer-term research will also keep researchers attuned to the needs of computer users five to 10 years from now. “In 10 years, computers will be 100 times faster than today, with average consumer bandwidth increasing at an even faster pace,” Lee added.
“Computers will not just be on desktops, but in TVs, in cars, and in appliances. We need to think about what we can do with that much computing in that many places, and not just be content with incremental improvements in today’s products.”
To accomplish this, Lee said Microsoft will tap into Beijing’s vast intellectual talent pool and will form partnerships with the city’s renowned educational institutions. These include top schools such as Tsinghua University and Peking University, and computer-related institutes at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which together offer more than 3,500 top Ph.D.-level computer scientists and Ph.D. students. MSR China will collaborate with individuals from these and other organizations, participating in research projects, lectures, and publishing opportunities.
“China has for a long time been very supportive of research, and produces a very large number of talented scientists,” said Michael Rawding, regional director of Microsoft’s Greater China Region. “We want to be in a position to work both directly with these talented people by bringing Chinese scientists on board here, as well as indirectly through joint research projects with universities and other institutions.”
By building those kinds of personal and institutional relationships, Microsoft is demonstrating its ongoing commitment to fundamental research in China and to the host country itself.
This year the company opened the Greater China Regional Support Center in Shanghai, and set up a new team that is focusing on Windows CE-related development – the first time Microsoft has ever formed teams in both China and Redmond to build specific products for the country.
Together, these endeavors reflect the company’s long-term commitment to China. “We expect that both Microsoft and China will reap great benefits from the new technologies, new employees and new partnerships that will stem from MSR China,” said MSR Vice President Rick Rashid.