Microsoft research offers peek at future

Some of the best innovations to come from Microsoft’s research labs will be invisible, if they work as planned.

The Microsoft Corp. research organization, which has grown in the dozen years since its inception to more than 700 people in five labs, has projects ranging from crafting more-reliable software to clamping down on spam to cross-referencing maps of the planet and the skies.

Researchers showed off some of those technologies – it’s much too early to call them products – at an in-house mini-trade show Wednesday at Microsoft’s Mountain View, California, campus. Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, reported on the organization’s current projects.

“A lot of what is happening at Microsoft today came out of the research group,” Rashid said.

For example, code optimization technology that the researchers developed nearly a decade ago enabled Microsoft to simultaneously ship Windows 95 and Office 95, Rashid says. “It was a huge differentiator in the marketplace to be able to bring products to market earlier.”

Like many other aspects of the researchers’ most useful work, however, the early Windows effort was not evident to customers. The exhibits shown Wednesday offered hints of similar future projects. Among them: No Spam @ Any (CPU) Speed: This antispam concept takes several approaches to slowing down spam – literally. Each e-mail exchange would entail solving a cryptographic puzzle. The computation would be required of any e-mail from senders not in a recipient’s address book, says Andrew Goldberg, one of the researchers on the project. If the sender failed to respond to a message requesting that they run the antispam filter, the e-mail would be rejected.

The computation would take approximately 10 seconds per message, but it would quickly become burdensome for spammers who send millions of messages daily.

GWindows: This software technology introduces an optical input interface that enables users to make hand gestures to interact with Windows and, potentially, with applications.

PageTurner: This technology provides an alternative to Web-crawling as a way to gather information for use in search engines. Because the total amount of Web content keeps growing, PageTurner relies on incremental crawling to identify changed material, instead of checking everything. According to researchers, only 7 percent of Web pages change one-third or more of their content every week, so this approach could make for more efficient and up-to-date results that won’t bog search engines down as Web pages proliferate.

MyLifeBits: This rather eclectic approach to database development seeks to assemble information (such as music and video) in formats that could not be stored digitally until fairly recently, says Roy Levin, director of Microsoft Research’s Silicon Valley site.

TerraServer Storage Project: A Web service that spans many geographic databases, cross-referencing a variety of maps. The selection, which draws from satellite images and topographic maps, is available to the public at TerraService.Net.

SkyServer: The astronomical equivalent of TerraServer, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey SkyServer also already exists online in an early form, with help from the Sloan Foundation, at SkyServer.

Security and privacy issues are a major concern in many research projects, the leaders say. In fact, Microsoft’s companywide Trustworthy Computing initiative requires that security be considered in any Microsoft project.

Security efforts surround many projects without being immediately evident, said Levin.

“Fighting spam is an effort to make e-mail safer, and a form of security,” he noted in one example. Similarly, developing better programming tools to prevent flaws that leave systems vulnerable is inherently a security matter.

Privacy issues must be considered in any data-mining development efforts, Levin pointed out.

“We (once) assumed that information stayed fairly isolated,” when it was provided to different sources, such as medical offices, schools, or social contacts, said Levin. But through computers, and especially networks, disparate information is easily associated-raising security and privacy issues.

As a result, one project of Levin’s staff is to establish mathematical techniques for cross-referencing data and permitting broad statistical research without drilling down so far as to destroy privacy.

Because Microsoft Research is part of a software company, an ongoing priority is to help Microsoft build better software, Rashid says.

“The challenge for us is to say, How do you build software artifacts that are tens-and soon to be hundreds-of millions of lines of code, that do what users want them to do?” Rashid said. Many of the labs’ projects involve crafting cleaner code, designing more efficient programming techniques, and developing more efficient testing.

For example, researchers showed off Scout, which Rashid describes as test prioritization software.

“Scout is designed to map the basic blocks in the code to the tests that touch those basic blocks,” Rashid said. This helps set priorities for software testing, so the things most likely to be affected by a new piece of code or some coding change are tested first. The idea is to avoid discovering too late that the change that repaired one problem actually created another.

Scout technology is already being used in development of the next versions of Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server, as well as Microsoft Windows Server 2003.

Rashid also ticked off a handful of recent Microsoft products that draw on technology developed by his team. Windows Media Audio, now in version 9, came out of the research group, as did key streaming-media technology, he said.

Tablet PC technology, including the original hardware reference point and handwriting recognition software, sprang from the research group. Microsoft supplies Windows XP for Tablet PCs in the first commercial tablets, which shipped last fall.

Another recent announcement, SPOT, wirelessly networks objects as diverse as keychains, wallets, and wristwatches. It was incubated in the research group, Rashid said.

“It’s part of the ubiquitous computing vision: smart, low-power processing power that can go about anywhere but have connectivity to the outside world,” he said. Microsoft has cut deals with a handful of leading operators of FM radio signal transmitters to provide the low-level network.

“When it comes online this fall, (SPOT) will cover about 80 percent of the U.S. and Canada,” Rashid said.

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