REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 4, 2001 — Since the birth of Microsoft Research (MSR) in September 1991, Microsoft has sought to rewrite the book on how to maintain the academic freedom of its researchers while integrating their insights and other contributions into the companys products.
Microsoft product teams and MSR researchers have forged bonds through formal and informal “tech transfer” meetings and collaborative research projects to build specific technologies. Also, researchers have learned to spot promising technologies and pitch them to product teams or even form new product teams “productize” promising research.
As a result MSR, product groups say, Microsoft is able to bring cutting-edge technology to its products faster and at less cost to the company and consumers. These advances include everything from better ways to display high-quality text on computer screens with ClearType to faster, more efficient ways to categorize and rank massive amounts of information with products such as SharePoint Portal Server. They also include new conveniences such as smart tags and speech recognition software in Office XP and faster, more accurate ways to pull information from databases with products such as SQL Server 2000.
“When you look at the diversity of research being done at MSR and all of the ways our researchers work with product teams, it’s not an exaggeration to say that every product Microsoft releases is now affected in some way by MSR,” said Philip Fawcett, a program manager for MSR.
When Microsoft formed MSR in 1991, the key charter was and still is pure research — free from product-delivery cycles. Methods for sharing the ideas and new technologies these researchers developed gradually. Some researchers credit the close proximity of their offices to those of product teams. Unlike most corporate research labs, MSR keeps a majority of its researchers (approximately 350) on the same campus as most of the product teams, allowing them to better integrate their efforts when working together.
Fawcett and six other self-styled “technology transfer agents” are another factor. It’s their job to be aware of all the research projects at MSR, meet regularly with Microsoft product teams and help spot places where the research might come in handy. MSR also holds annual technology festivals on the Redmond campus. The events are similar to science fairs, allowing researchers to demonstrate and display their projects for other Microsoft employees.
“It’s all about exchanging ideas and solving problems,” Fawcett said. “The best technology transfer occurs when the problems can meet the solutions.”
Tech Transfer Began Years Ago in Office
Technology transfer between researchers and product teams began dates back to soon after Microsoft formed MSR. A prime example, researchers say, is the Answer Wizard that first appeared in Office 95. The wizard was born almost nine years ago, when an Office product team came to MSR in search of a way to help users more easily find information within the application. Senior researcher David Heckerman, manager of the Machine Learning and Applied Statistics Group at MSR, mulled the possibilities and produced a solution within a few weeks: a diagnostic algorithm based on the statistical methods of the Rev. Thomas Bayes, an 18th Century mathematician.
The algorithm provides likely matches for a user’s request, making informed guesses based on the clues typed into the onscreen Help box. The Answer Wizard became one of the top features of Office. An updated version of the wizard, which includes additional innovations from other MSR researchers, appears today in Office XP, the latest version of the product.
Office XP offers additional examples of technology transfer. Both smart tags and new speech recognition technology materialized from research that was initially done at MSR with no direct connection to any Microsoft product. In both cases, researchers saw the potential of their work, and new teams were created outside MSR to help find ways to incorporate these ideas into products — or “productize” them. Before their work was done, both teams recruited other teams of researchers and product developers to provide additional ideas and technologies. The Speech.NET team that developed the speech recognition software reached out as far as the MSR lab in Beijing, China, for help developing the technology to recognize simplified Chinese.
Both technologies are now key features of Office XP, ones that differentiate the product from those of other software companies, said David Jaffe, lead product manager for Office.
Smart tags are on-screen buttons that automatically offer links to relevant information on the Web or across an organization. Numerous organizations, including online legal and business service providers LexisNexis and Westlaw, have developed smart tags with online links for users. Many others plan to develop their own smart tags soon, Jaffe says. Also, since smart tags are extensible, companies can build their own to help employees quickly access important information and, ultimately, increase overall productivity, Jaffe adds.
Microsoft added the speech recognition software in Office XP to increase the productivity of people who are slow typists, have difficulty typing because disabilities such as carpal tunnel syndrome, or live in East Asian countries with complex languages. All are now able to enter information by speaking to their PCs instead of typing.
SQL Server Benefits from Product-savvy Researchers
Smart tags and the speech recognition software in Office XP demonstrate one reason why technology transfer works at Microsoft, Jaffe and others say. Namely, MSR researchers are good at spotting research with promising commercial applications and are eager to get it into products. So much so that some MSR researchers look for ways to improve existing products with little or no prodding from product teams. This is how SQL Server received some of the technology that distinguishes it from other mass-market databases, product managers say.
Surajit Chaudhuri, manager of the Data Management and Exploration Mining group, and teammate Vivek Narasayya recognized the need to make databases administer and “tune” themselves, without the help of a database administrator They built a prototype self-tuning wizard for the SQL Server database that eliminates many of the chores of physical database design, a basic management task database administrators used to perform. After developing the algorithm for the wizard, the MSR researchers pitched the idea to the SQL Server development team. The team liked it so much that they gave it a name (the Index Tuning Wizard) and added it to SQL Server 7.0. No other mainstream database had ever offered such a feature, according to Microsoft. SQL Server 2000 offers an enhanced version of the wizard that recommends the appropriate indexes and on-screen representations of these indexes based on the workload.
Similarly, Chaudhuri and other MSR researchers helped develop the infrastructure that enables SQL Server to hunt, or “mine,” for information with databases. Along with members of the SQL Server team, they came up with a new application-programming interface (API) for SQL Server 2000 called OLE DB for Data Mining. The API allows programmers who use the SQL computer language to take advantage of the data mining capability in SQL Server 2000 the same way they make traditional queries for information in databases. As a result, developers can build their own database applications that employ the data mining capabilities of SQL Server 2000.
In addition, Chaudhuri’s group and Heckerman’s Machine Learning and Applied Statistics group provided algorithms that make it possible for SQL Server 2000 to identify patterns within the information in databases and to display the information, enabling users to more easily understand the results.
These advances are important because they allow businesses of all sizes — even those without a database administrator — to more easily and more accurately make sense of the endless amounts of information they are collecting about their sales patterns and traffic on their Web sites, says Jeff Ressler, lead product manager for SQL Server.
Several MSR teams continue to look for additional ways to enhance the SQL Server product. “This work guarantees that customers will see continued database innovations from Microsoft — innovations that make previously unavailable features practical and approachable,” Ressler says. “We are not resting on our laurels.”
Early Collaboration Spurs SharePoint Portal Server, ClearType
Sometimes the collaboration between MSR and the product teams starts before a product is fully defined, as was the case three years ago when Microsoft’s Business Portal Group began planning the technology that would go into SharePoint Portal Server.
The product group wanted the new product to include a mature search engine and sophisticated text retrieval. The team contacted Susan Dumais, an MSR researcher who has studied human search techniques for more than 20 years. They asked her to suggest new technologies and timelines for integrating these technologies into a product.
Within six months, the product group had the core of the search engine that’s in the new Web-based server, which Microsoft released earlier this year. The engine includes advances developed by Dumais to determine the context of a user’s text search. It also includes contributions from several other Microsoft researchers and a Microsoft product team in Israel. Among the researchers was John Platt, who wrote the core code of the engine and provided an algorithm that speeds up and increases the accuracy of the engine’s search capability.
Combined, these contributions created an engine that can search and categorize as many as 30,000 text documents in 120 categories in under two minutes. MS Web, which uses the new search technology in SharePoint Portal Server, is now able to re-index all 2.5 million documents on Microsoft’s corporate intranet in eight hours. It used to take 4 1/2 days, says Alex Wade, manager of the Knowledge Access Group within the company’s Information Services Department.
Similar to SharePoint Portal Server, ClearType arose from a group effort among MSR researchers and product teams. Both knew there was a need for significant improvement in the visual quality of onscreen text if electronic books were ever to become a viable option for most readers.
As recently as the mid-1990s, new techniques called anti-aliasing had added detail to onscreen type, but they also tended to make the user’s eyes tired and unable to focus on the text. “What we needed was the ability to express more detail without the side effects,” said Greg Hitchcock, development lead on the ClearType team of Microsoft’s eReading group.
Hitchcock, who has more than 15 years of experience creating computer type fonts, worked with typographer Michael Duggan, a program manager on the ClearType team, and present and former MSR researchers Bill Hill, Bert Keely and Turner Whitted to find a way to get more resolution from the finite number of pixels, the tiny dots that form an image on screen. They achieved their goal by treating each of the three colored subpixels within pixels on a color screen as full-blown pixels. This nearly triples the resolution on screens that use the technique, which they called ClearType.
ClearType has become a key feature for Microsoft Reader, Microsoft’s eBooks software for the Pocket PC, and Windows devices such as the Tablet PC that Microsoft is developing. ClearType also will debut next month in the newest version of Microsoft’s desktop operating system, Windows XP.
MSR Contributions Bring Products to Market Faster, Cheaper
Hitchcock is unequivocal about the importance of MSR in the development of ClearType: “This would not have happened without the contributions from MSR.”
Other product groups said they might have been able to acquire similar technologies from other companies, but these technologies probably wouldn’t be as good, wouldn’t integrate as well into Microsoft products and would cost Microsoft a lot of money to purchase, which might raise the overall price of the product.
Time is also a factor. SQL Server 2000 would never have made it on the market last year, Ressler said, if Microsoft would have had to work with other companies to purchase or develop technologies similar to those provided by MSR.
“The real benefits are to the customer,” said Trina Seinfeld, product manager for SharePoint Portal Server. “We are able to integrate innovation into our products so much faster.”