Thursday, January 26, 2006

Microsoft Live Labs and Search Labs

Microsoft announced two new R&D groups, Microsoft Live Labs and Microsoft Search Labs:
Live Labs will investigate a broad and comprehensive set of research topics such as multimedia search, machine learning, distributed computing and data mining, and will engage in rapid prototyping and the incubation of disruptive technologies.

Search Labs will focus on areas such as personalization, socialization and improved user experiences while maintaining strict regard for user privacy.
It is interesting that Search Labs is focusing on personalized search and social search. With Yahoo's efforts in social search and Google's personalized search already launched, this move may be a reaction to a perception that Microsoft is falling behind in these areas.

I found another part of the announcement also to be telling:
Unlike basic research, which is geared toward visionary discoveries that may or may not end up in actual products, and product development, which is feature-focused and geared toward solving tactical engineering problems, Live Labs'’ applied research will study the relationship and applicability of theories or principles to the solution of a problem or an actual product or service.
At Google, the hordes of PhDs are integrated into the broader organization. Everyone is doing applied R&D.

At Microsoft Research, the researchers are isolated. This preserves their independence, but makes it quite hard for the good ideas in MSR to make it to the product teams, a problem that is aggravated by a NIH attitude in the product teams that extends even to MSR.

Live Labs and Search Labs sound like an effort to bridge that gap, to be a little more Google-like with their brainiacs.

A bit more information on Microsoft Live Labs is available at

See also articles by Gary Price and Todd Bishop.

See also my previous post, "Microsoft adLab and targeted ads".

Update: Interesting thoughts from Nathan Weinberg:
Everyone, both people working at Microsoft and outsiders, agrees that MS gets outdone by three-person startups that can be more nimble, more reckless and more innovative.

Live Labs ... is free from the restrictions normally imposed on development teams. They will be able to work without worrying about how their product affects existing teams and existing revenue models, with the end results being the sole purpose of the team.

In a sense, it's a startup within Microsoft.
On a related note, Guy Kawasaki, in his post "Intrapreneurship", has some good advice for those seeking to create a team that acts like a startup within a much larger firm.


Anonymous said...

Hey Greg,

I found your site by doing a Google search on neural networks, and your post from last JUNE popped up in the top ten results. I didn't have time to thoroughly read it, but I did catch that you don't seem to thing that Google implements a neural network in their search engine. I don't know if the do, or if they don't, but I noticed in passing that two of the people on their board of directors are specialists in biochemistry and cloning. Coincidence? I think not... I'm really curious to see what is going on in Google labs now.

Here is the url:

Look at Arthur Levinson and Shirley M. Tilghman.

Happy Blogging

Anonymous said...

Some interesting points as always, but I've got to challenge your characterization of Microsoft's researchers as isolated and its product teams as resistant to their research.

To take just one area - speech recognition technology (I'm in Microsoft's Speech Server team). Some examples of features shipping today that are direct technology transfers from MS researchers? (You asked for this :-) Most of the core speech recognition and text-to-speech engines. The SALT speech markup language. Audio search in OneNote. And countless other components and improvements across many platforms. And there are tons more coming in Windows Vista and the next version of Speech Server.

In my experience, the dialogue between research and product teams at Microsoft has been open and productive and this extends way beyond speech technologies. I think the Live Labs initiative is much more about a coherent strategy for diverse technologies across multiple teams than getting researchers and developers to talk to one another.

Greg Linden said...

Hi, Stephen. Great point on the speech technologies. I've heard that the flow is pretty good between the database researchers and the SQL group as well.

However, I have heard many times from different people that getting technology from MSR to MSN Search has been slow. Many of the social computing initiatives (Wallop, Inner Circle) also seem to be stuck.

It's unfortunate. There's great work over there.