Page last updated at 14:37 GMT, Saturday, 24 May 2008 15:37 UK

Microsoft's survival strategy

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Innovation is vital to the future survival of Microsoft, according to its own research head.

Roy Levin
Roy Levin, founder of Microsoft's Silicon Valley, at the roadshow

Rick Rashid, charged with overseeing research worldwide, made the comments as Microsoft offered a glimpse at some of the projects aimed at ensuring the company goes from strength-to-strength.

"Ultimately the goal of Microsoft Research is to make sure Microsoft is still here in 10 years."

Not unsurprisingly there was no mention of Yahoo's role, given Microsoft's pursuit of the company and subsequent failure to buy it.

Earlier this month, Yahoo snubbed Microsoft's offer of $47.5bn to purchase the internet portal.

However discussions have resumed and Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer says it is "not bidding to buy Yahoo" but is looking at other types of deals "that might create value".

We have evolved

While Yahoo's name did not pass the lips of Microsoft executives here, the name of another competitor based very close to the Silicon Valley lab did.

In outlining why a company like Microsoft invests in research, Mr Rashid said: "If something really bad happens, a war, a famine, Google, you can react. We are still here because we have evolved and changed."

His views were echoed by the man who runs the firm's research facility in Silicon Valley, which concentrates on distributed computing.

Roy Levin told BBC News: "Our focus is on advancing the state-of-the-art in computing and in inventing things no-one else has. Our mission is to lead that charge."

In showing how well they are doing in achieving that goal, the Silicon Valley lab threw open its doors to journalists, high school kids and even competitors from companies such as Google, Sun Microsystems and Adobe Systems.

There were 12 projects on display; a snapshot, says Mr Levin, of what Microsoft Research has to offer from its team of over 800 researchers based around the world. They ranged from search to privacy and from e-science to gaming.


Boku is a video game which is basically aimed at creating the computer programmers of tomorrow.

Visual cue card for instructing the robot
Principal programme manager Matt MacLaurin, a father of a three and three-quarter year-old daughter, designed Boku "as a tool so that kids can make their own games".

"Its secretly a tool to teach kids what programming is like without getting too bogged down in the detail," he said.

The technology lets users guide or program the behaviour of a virtual robot through the use of visual cue cards in the game to perform simple tasks like eating an apple or following another character.

Mr MacLaurin says Boku's marriage of creativity and education is a clever way to hook children into this world.

He noted that girls took just two hours to become completely conversant with Boku while he fudged on how long the boys took.

Mr MacLaurin says Boku, aimed at nine to 11 year olds, will be on sale from the beginning of next year for the X-Box.


Botnets are computers that have been taken over by someone else and are beyond the user's control. They are often used to send spam and steal passwords, credit card numbers and personal information. Such attacks are regarded as a billion-dollar shadow industry.

Yinglian Xie and Fang Yu decided to do some research into the field after noticing that Microsoft's Hotmail facility was a popular target of large scale botnet attacks.

Botnet story
View of dynamic IP addresses throughout the world
The team developed a series of techniques for automatically detecting computer servers, or dynamic IP addresses, that send spam by focusing on addresses which change frequently.

Ms Xie says "A normal mail server will want not only to send e-mails but also to receive them so they want a relatively stable IP address. They normally won't use a highly dynamic IP address."

She says: "96% of mail servers on dynamic IP addresses actually send nothing but spam, this knowledge was not much exposed before."

They both hope that eventually their research will be incorporated into Microsoft's Hotmail e-mail service.


The virtual world and the real world mesh with LaserTouch, billed as an inexpensive multi-touch sensing platform.

It's the brainchild of computer vision specialist Andy Wilson, who says "the magic is the software" and that he invented it "for fun".

"I am not making any heavy statements about this," he said.

Surface computers will be pervasive
He doesn't need to. Chairman Bill Gates did that at a recent CEO summit in Redmond with a giant touch wall powered by Mr Wilson's software.

Mr Gates said he wanted to turn nearly everything we touch into a computer and that surface computers "will be absolutely pervasive. In the individual's office, home, the living room."

Mr Wilson's laser touch unit uses a series of lasers, an overhead camera and a 2600 pixel-wide display surface. The mouse is consigned to the dustbin as LaserTouch relies on people using their hands to interact with the computer.


Microsoft's E-Science group works with scientists as a kind of middle-man to "develop tools to help them do their science better and enable progress to happen quicker".

Three projects were on display. One covering water quality, another concerning the Russian River in California and the third on collecting carbon data.

In the carbon project known as Fluxdata, a group of 400 scientists from across the world are looking at how vegetation is being affected by carbon emissions.

In the past they might well have worked in isolation and only exchanged information via email assuming they would know who else was conducting complementary research.

Yogesh Simmhan says: "Now what Microsoft does is take the 400 different sites where the data is being gathered and pull that data into the cloud, the back end."

He added: "The information becomes much more powerful when these scientists from around the world can actually correlate data and not just look at their own work. Proof that it's no longer possible to do science without doing computing."


The mouse is history. Long live the pen, as far as InkSeine is concerned.

This is an interface for tablet computers and works as a digital notebook that users can write on using an electronic pen.

Raman Sarin says "We've thrown away a lot of the standard windows controls and developed controls that work better with a pen."

Raman Sarin at Inkseine
The mouse is dead, long live the electronic pen
Instead of scroll bars you make a circular motion to scroll. Instead of drop down bars, which Mr Sarin says he hates, there is a radial or marking menu you access by circling your pen.

When it comes to using the search application, Mr Sarin says the pen makes it easier than using the mouse to drag any image, email or web page into your notes.

He says over 6,000 people have already downloaded Inkseine and that he is overwhelmed by the positive feedback because it is at odds with the "Microsoft bashing" he normally gets.


Other projects on display during the road show included PINQ the company's Privacy Integrated Queries, aimed at enabling queries on data while protecting certain information, such as a person's health history.

DryadLINQ is concerned with making it easier to do large-scale data parallel computing.

worldwide telescope
Images from the virtual WorldWide Telescope
Also highlighted, and reported on by the BBC in past stories, was the WorldWide Telescope, combining imagery from space-based telescopes with internet data.

Bilingual Built-ins that Break Language Barriers features applications to get rid of barriers to worldwide communication. This online service is at the incubation stage and can be seen at

The Berkeley Emulation Engine, or BEE3, is aimed at researching advances in computer architecture.

Automatic Mutual Exclusion was devised to assist programmers programming for multiple CPUs, or central processing units.

The Keyboard Generation and Query Classification research focuses on developing technology to show keywords to advertisers.

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