As Economy Softens, Microsoft Ramps Up Research

Even as the world economy languishes, Microsoft is putting an increasing focus on its research efforts in areas well beyond its traditional desktop and office software domain.

By Jeremy Kirk
Thu, May 07, 2009

IDG News Service — Even as the world economy languishes, Microsoft is putting an increasing focus on its research efforts in areas well beyond its traditional desktop and office software domain.

New research can take up 15 years before it is incorporated into a product, so Microsoft needs to be ready when the economy comes back, said Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft's research facility in Cambridge, England.

The company employs about 1,000 researchers across its five labs in the U.S., U.K., India and China and is adding around 80 people a year, nearly the same number of people as many universities' computer science departments, Herbert said. It expects to spend US$9 billion this year on research and development.

On Wednesday, Microsoft opened the doors of its U.K. facility, the Roger Needham Building at the University of Cambridge. The open house had a sort of science-fair feel to it, with researchers on hand near displays describing what they've been working on.

The commercial prospects for many of the innovations remain fuzzy, and none of the technologies will necessarily be on the market any time soon. Microsoft's researchers work quite separate from the company's product developers.

The goal is for researchers to come up with innovations that will put a smile on CEO Steve Ballmer's face, Herbert said. Ballmer is probably already smiling, as many of the lab's projects show promise.

Here are few of the most interesting:

Somniloquy: Most of Microsoft's research efforts are in software, but one of the more exotic displays from Wednesday was Somniloquy, a raw-looking USB drive sticking out of a desktop PC.

Somniloquy is the term for talking during sleep, which is essentially what it allows a PC to do. When PCs go into sleep mode, they lose the ability to communicate on networks. The only alternative is to leave the PC on, which constantly draws power.

Business users often leave their office PCs on overnight to allow remote file access, and consumers tend to leave them on for overnight BitTorrent downloads or constant VOIP presence, said James Scott, a Microsoft researcher.

Somniloquy lets a computer go to sleep yet maintain a presence on the network. It has an SD Card for memory, so it could continue to download or even share files. It can also maintain a VOIP connection, waking up the PC when a call comes in. Somniloquy can also wake up the PC if someone is trying to remotely access the machine.

The power difference is astounding: Scott showed the desktop computer was consuming around 85 watts of power, but with Somniloquy, it consumes only around 4 watts. That small amount of power is used to maintain the DRAM state and power Somniloquy.

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