Microsoft Research Asia Turns 10, Looks to Innovate in Multimedia, Cloud Computing, Ads

Updated Nov. 5 with comments from senior vice president Rick Rashid (see below): You did good, Bill Gates. When you decided to build a new computer-science research lab in Beijing in 1998, you probably saw it as a relatively low-risk venture with a high upside. It would be challenging and take a lot of work on the ground, sure, but Microsoft would benefit from tapping top researchers in China and giving back to the local computer-science community, thereby earning good will in a country with huge market potential. From most appearances, the bet has paid off.

Microsoft Research Asia, which turns 10 years old today, is the largest of the company’s research labs outside of Redmond. (The others are located in Silicon Valley; Cambridge, England; Bangalore, India; and the newest one in Cambridge, MA.) It has about 350 full-time researchers and engineers, has employed 2,500 student interns, and has published some 3,000 papers in technical journals and conferences. More than 250 technologies from the lab have apparently been transferred into Microsoft products, including Office, Windows, Xbox, and MSN. Microsoft Research founder Nathan Myhrvold and senior vice president of research Rick Rashid played key roles in establishing the Chinese lab. (You can read more about its rise, and its impact on Microsoft, China, and information technology, in this book by a couple of Xconomy authors.)

This week is about celebrating with the community in Beijing—and getting work done at the same time. The Microsoft festivities include a faculty summit involving hundreds of visiting professors and administrators from the Asia-Pacific region, a technical advisory board meeting, and several lab-hosted banquet dinners. Gates himself won’t be there, but he visited in August during the Olympics. Among the Redmond returnees is Harry Shum, Microsoft’s vice president for search product development, who was the previous head of the Beijing lab. Ya-Qin Zhang, the lab director before him, is now a vice president in charge of Microsoft’s R&D and sales in China. (Microsoft now employs some 5,000 people in China.) I’m guessing the only member of the lab’s founding team who won’t be there is Kai-Fu Lee, who now heads up Google Greater China, after a high-profile split with Microsoft in 2005.

Rashid sent an e-mail to the lab and to the company’s top brass, including Gates and Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer: “I could not be more proud of what has been accomplished. Today was a great milestone for MSR Asia and for Microsoft Research.”

Reached by e-mail yesterday, the Beijing lab’s current managing director, Hsiao-Wuen Hon, said he was “completely occupied” with the week’s events. Hon is a former Apple employee who started working for Microsoft in Redmond on speech and user interfaces in 1995. Born and raised in China, he helped launch the Beijing lab and did a fair bit of recruiting in the early days. Hon moved to Beijing in 2004 to join the lab as assistant managing director, and also headed the lab’s Search Technology Center.

Microsoft’s foreign research labs have always been about finding the best talent around the world, and the Beijing lab has been a pretty striking example of this strategy. “There’s no doubt China produces a lot of engineers, but 10 years ago, no one knew what their quality was, particularly when we talk about people who can do world-class research,” said Hon in a recent interview with a Microsoft press officer. “We proved we could find that top talent and give them an environment in which to succeed.”

The Beijing lab’s main technical areas have evolved somewhat over the years. The researchers now focus on user interfaces, multimedia, data-centric computing (with a recent emphasis on cloud computing), search and ads, and fundamentals like theory, systems, and networking. It will be interesting to see how the lab contributes to the company’s recent initiatives in Web-based software, services, and advertising, and in mobile software. Looking ahead, how does Hon want people to view the Beijing lab—and Microsoft as a whole? “I want them to continue to think of Microsoft as an innovator,” Hon said in the interview. “We have very fierce competition from high-tech companies and people generating new technologies. We cannot sit still.”

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