Microsoft Research: The university model
While companies such as HP rely on partnerships with universities to gain access to many basic technologies, Microsoft Corp. is trying to create its own university, Chesbrough says.
Indeed, Microsoft Research can reasonably claim to have already done so. It has been led from its beginning in 1991 by Richard Rashid, a former professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Rashid makes no secret of his operating model for Microsoft Research: "The work we do is not that different from what you'd find at Stanford or Berkeley or [Carnegie Mellon University] in the sense that it is publishable basic research that is peer-reviewed."
Rashid adheres to an outlook that sets Microsoft Research apart from many IT companies where every research project has a product line in mind: "Our research may have a short-term impact on the product groups, but that's not why we do the work -- it's a consequence of the work."
For example, Rashid says, he started a small research group in computer vision -- machines that can see -- in the mid-1990s when no Microsoft product at the time seemed to need that kind of technology.
"But in a few years, digital imaging and photography became a huge value to other parts of the company in areas like photo processing, image analysis and signal processing, and things like Windows Media and audiovisual codecs came out of that earlier work," he says. "And now things like Microsoft Surface are all based on computer vision technology. In fact, you could have read about the work leading up to Surface five years ago."
Because Rashid's philosophy is to first do good computer science, and then see where it might fit, he focuses first on people. "My biggest lever is who I hire and who I fire; it's not telling people what to do," he says.
Asked why he decided to launch a new lab in Cambridge, Mass., that will work at the intersection of traditional computer science and the social sciences, he says, "You don't establish a lab without the right person to do it. We had a great researcher, Jennifer Chayes, and she was really excited about a lab in that area [of the country]. She's fabulous and has done incredible work. If it wasn't for her energy and initiative, it probably wouldn't have happened."
To be sure, many of the 272 research projects named at Microsoft Research's Web site are structured with major product lines like Windows, Office or Xbox in mind. But many seem to have no likely application in anything the company sells today. “We are growing outward into areas where computer science intersects with other disciplines, like AIDS research, computational biology, astronomy, earth sciences and the environment," Rashid says. "We are increasingly engaged where computer science is making a big difference in the way other sciences are done."
Asked about the trend toward outreach and collaboration, Rashid reels off a long list of global partnerships, many of them formed in the just the past two years: a joint lab with INRIA, the French national institute for research in computer science and control; a partnership with the University of Trent Centre for Systems and Computational Biology in Italy; a partnership with the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre in Spain that focuses on parallel distributed processing; the Microsoft-Intel Universal Parallel Computing Research Centers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the Microsoft-sponsored Centre for Computational Thinking at Carnegie Mellon; the partnership with Georgia Institute of technology at the Institute for Personal Robots in Education; the partnership with universities in the Latin American Collaborative Research Federation; and the annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summits.