Microsoft taps European expertise in research

European researchers lead the field in a number of key areas for the future development of computer science and play a crucial role in Microsoft Corp.’s research activities, according to senior company staff speaking at an innovation fair in Brussels Thursday.

Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England, has attracted leading researchers to work there, said its head, Andrew Herbert. The laboratory has been able to build on Europe’s strengths in systems and networks, machine learning, programming languages and theory, and interactive systems.

Herbert attributed the strength of European research to a different academic tradition to the U.S., in particular the stronger emphasis on mathematics. Europe has also taken the lead in image processing because of the interest in medical applications, he explained.

Microsoft’s Cambridge laboratory was the company’s first outside the U.S.

It was established in 1997 and now boasts 85 researchers of 17 different nationalities.

The laboratory concentrates on “blue sky” research rather than product-driven work.

“Our mission is to move the state-of-the-art forward” and “not to worry about what technology Microsoft needs,” said Rick Rashid, senior vice president, Microsoft Research. “Unless we can do that we’re not going to be an asset.”

Innovations that have come out of Cambridge and other research sites which are an important part of Microsoft’s current product range include the Tablet PC, digital media technology and new speech recognition products, according to Rashid.

While the research may not be determined by Microsoft’s immediate technology needs, the laboratory relies heavily on feedback from users to identify problems that need addressing.

“Forensic data” on how the company’s operating systems are working worldwide ends up on Herbert’s desk in Cambridge and allows Microsoft to track problems and find solutions.

For Rashid, the key to effective research is letting talented people get on with what they know best. “Don’t bias the front-end of the innovation process. Let good people make decisions,” he said in an interview.

Rashid also advocates bringing together people from different disciplines — mathematicians, software engineers, sociologists and ethnographers — and different backgrounds. “You get different perspectives in different regions, different life experiences. People will look at problems in a new way,” he said.

While there may not be as strong an entrepreneurial spirit among European researchers, according to Herbert, this is changing, thanks to Europe-wide research projects like the E.U.’s research framework program, currently in its sixth incarnation.

“(These) have opened people’s eyes to a bigger world,” Herbert said, and have helped build a research network.

Microsoft’s involvement in EU research projects is carried out by another of its research sites, the European Microsoft Innovation Centre in Aachen, Germany. Here the company works on collaborative projects with other private sector firms and universities with a particular focus on mobile technologies.

Current examples include AskIT, which aims to harness mobile and wireless technologies to help physically-impaired people, which is a cooperation with German electronics firm Siemens AG and Italian car-maker Fiat SpA. Other projects include e-health applications.

Microsoft also has research operations in Vedbaek, Denmark, focusing on solutions for small- and mid-sized enterprises, and Dublin, which provides country-specific versions of the firm’s leading products.

At the fair the company showcased a number of new applications including a cheap and easy to use tamper-proof biometric ID system, a new information retrieval system called SIS IQ (which may be part of Longhorn when it’s shipped), a wireless data broadcast system and wireless network architecture.

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