Craig Mundie and Rick Rashid on Why Microsoft Research Matters (Even More than Usual)

Microsoft’s ninth annual TechFest is going on this week in Redmond, WA. This is the big demo event where researchers from all of Microsoft’s research labs around the world (based in Redmond, Silicon Valley, New England, UK, India, and China) get to show off their results to product groups, vice presidents, professors, and other guests.

I spent the morning there, and (among many other things) heard some high-level strategy thoughts from Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, and Rick Rashid, senior vice president and worldwide head of Microsoft Research.

Just a few highlights:

—Mundie spoke about the importance of research to Microsoft’s long-term future, especially in the current climate: “I think research is one of the things we have to do to survive in the long term,” he said. “Even big and great companies can have 30- to 40-year lifespans. My responsibility is to balance the interest of shareholders, employees, and the public, who we service through these technologies. The company would struggle to survive and prosper if we didn’t have the research investment. Companies who are struggling say, ‘We can get by with acquisitions,’ and so forth. I think that contributes to their demise. So in building research labs outside the U.S. [for example], we start first with the idea of long-term prospering.”

Mundie added, “It’s a time when it’s even more important than normal. If you look back at the economic downturns, including the beginning of the Great Depression, the companies that fared the best continued to invest in research and product development. We remain very focused in both research and development across the company.”

Asked to comment on specific areas of technology that might spur economic growth, Mundie pointed to user interfaces and human-computer interaction, particularly in developing countries where people are just starting to come online.

—Rashid said, “One of the values of basic research is you don’t know what will come of it…You invest in basic research precisely because you don’t know what the future is going to hold—you’re going to have a war, famine, economic dislocation, or technology changes, or there’s a new competitor. If you knew what you were going to do, it wouldn’t be basic research.” He emphasized the importance of looking years down the road—it will usually be at least two or three years before a project beginning in Microsoft Research will be useful to product teams.

As for specific technologies that could make a difference to Microsoft, Rashid pointed to location-aware services for social networking, virtual environments, and projects that harness the power of imaging and video using mobile devices, among others.

Stay tuned for more from Microsoft’s research and innovation showcase…

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