Whenever I bring up Microsoft Research someone usually mouths off about “what have they done that’s improved the products?” Or something along those lines.
I keep going back to Douglas Engelbart and the dinner I had with him about half a year ago. He invented the mouse in the 1960s, but it didn’t get popularized until the Macintosh came out in the 1980s.
Was that research important? I don’t think any human would say it wasn’t.
But if you talked about SRI in the 1970s, you might be able to give it the knock that I hear frequently about Microsoft’s research today. “Where’s the beef?”
Now, if you talk to Kevin Schofield, the guy who is in charge of moving technology from Microsoft Research to products, he has a whole list of beef. The mapper in Biztalk. The rating system in Xbox Live. The graphics engines in DirectX. And a whole bunch of other stuff.
So, why do so few companies do real research? Now, I know that Google thinks they are doing research. They hire platoons of PhDs. And give them 20% of their time to do whatever they want (more on that later). But they don’t share their research and the researchers are mixed into the product teams, so they don’t get to work on problems that don’t have commercial applicability. Why is that? Cause their coworkers get to bug them. At Microsoft the researchers are off in another building. To go bug them you have to take the time to go over to that building.
Now, there’s a downside. Marc Smith, inside MS Research, is doing some killer work on newsgroups and social effects therein. But I wish he’d focus more of his energies on blogs, instead. Those have more commercial applications than newsgroups.
But, this is an important point: research is NOT done because of commercial pressures. It’s done to study something and come up with new approaches.
This is why it’s so important that our industry continues to do real research. Not just product development. You never know what Marc will learn from studying the social behaviors of those who hang out in newsgroups. Maybe he’ll find a new algorithm that’ll prove very useful in a blog search engine.
So, why am I writing this? Well, if we come back in 100 years and talk about Bill Gates we’ll probably remember only two things: 1) that he improved the world with his foundation and 2) That he was a visionary businessperson because he invested his monopoly profits back into research.
We’ll forget about everything else, just like we forget all about everything else Thomas Edison did other than invent things. Or, how we remember John Rockefeller paid for libraries.
We should encourage other geeks who’ve gotten great wealth to do real research as well and share that knowledge with society.
Have you poked around Microsoft’s research site? It’s quite remarkable.
Now, imagine Oracle doing something like that. Or Apple. Or Google. Or Yahoo. Or eBay. Or Amazon.
If there’s one thing I miss about not having my job at Channel 9 anymore it’s my tours around Microsoft Research with Kevin. I still can’t believe they let me hang out in the hallways there with a camcorder. There were things I wasn’t allowed to shoot that were even more remarkable. Hopefully we’ll be able to use those things sooner than 25 years from now, though. It really is too bad it took industry 25 years to understand what Douglas Engelbart was saying.
But, I’m still glad someone paid Doug to do that research.
Update: Googlers point to their 20% time as proof that they are investing in research. I say that’s bullhockey. Why? Most of the Googler’s I know are pulling 70 hour weeks. Saying you get 20% of a 70-hour week to spend on what you want is like telling me I get to spend Saturday doing what I want. Gee, thanks. But, even forgetting that, if you’re on a product group you are still pressured to come up with products. Being on a separate research team removes some of that pressure (not all, cause even at Microsoft the researchers are very aware that things should be aimed into products at some point, but it certainly lets workers take a more long-term approach).