A sneak peek at next-gen search and collaboration

Microsoft Corp. threw open the doors to its worldwide research labs this week for TechFest, the Redmond-based showcase of 150 of the most cutting-edge projects from the company’s seven research centres across the globe.

Thousands of developers from all over the world flooded into the corporate headquarters, where a new research operating system and several dozen projects were on display for reporters, including a strong showing of on-the-go collaboration and search projects.

Singularity, a prototype operating system for the computer science research environment, was made available today free of charge for non-commercial and academic use. The program is geared toward improving software dependability and specifications. Rick Rashid, senior vice-president of Microsoft Research, said, “It fosters innovative ideas on operating system structure and interconnection, and makes more guarantees on behaviour, and predictive and reliable systems.”

Microsoft is also clearly continuing its attempt to kick a dent in Google’s massive market share. Several of the fledgling projects featured were new search tool prototypes, such as SearchTogether, SearchBar and CoSearch.

Researcher Merrie Morris said that she had conducted an informal survey about collaborative search experiences, and found some users had problems with unnecessary redundant effort and a lack of shared context.

The SearchTogether feature would be a browser plug-in that would allow users to remotely search together. The keywords used by each person would show up in the shared taskbar—known as the SearchBar—where they could also click on the other’s results to see them, too. SplitSearching would allow the users to split the results between them so that each could tackle half of the hits. A summary window has an area for comments, and a way for users to send e-mail results to someone else. A Peek and Follow function would allow the user to take a look at what search results the other user is currently browsing.

CoSearch would allow users sharing a computer—such as business people during a meeting—to be connected to the same search engine and result set through multiple sets of pointers from mice or via cell phone (courtesy of Bluetooth technology).

Researchers Venky Ganti and Sanjay Agrawal presented their prototype of a query portal tool that would allow users to receive search results broken down into categories and recommendations that are ranked for relevancy. “The constructed design for queries are not prepared to direct people to their areas of interest,” said Ganti. “Information queries aren’t currently served very well.”

Collaboration prototypes were also popular. Redmond-based researcher Andrzej Turski presented Salsa, the project that would give users’ Outlook e-mail Web 2.0 collaborative capabilities, using SharePoint.

“It gives a human face to e-mail communication,” according to Turski, who said the prototype could be rolled out to Microsoft employees this year. Users would have “profiles” within their Outlook, which would be fed by Facebook updates, SharePoint content and RSS feeds. The page would show a bio, status, friend/expertise list, project description, feeds, and project description and feedback “wall.” Users could track e-mails and posts about certain projects.

Salsa does, however, set itself apart from SharePoint, Turski said. “The problem with SharePoint is that it is too removed from the ways that we actually work.”

The C2 project presented also seeks to tie together the current working ways when it comes to contact lists, aggregating multiple contacts and content from a variety of Web 2.0-based and social networking sites, such as Facebook, Windows Live Spaces, MySpace, LinkedIn and Flickr.

Several Canadian researchers who also work in the enterprise collaboration space attended TechFest, including senior researcher Abbie Sellen and principal researcher Bill Buxton. “There’s a bit of an ivory tower aspect to research, so it’s great to feel that enthusiasm—you get an energy boost,” said Sellen.

According to Buxton, the event doesn’t just benefit the product units hungry for fresh blood.

“When it comes to technology transfer, you’d think for the operational partners, it’d be like manna from heaven and they can just take it,” Buxton said. “But it’s really about provoking a conversation—not to show them what we have, but to have a conversation. They then give information to us, so it’s bi-directional.”