Microsoft Live Labs Reorganization, Questioned by Many, Is Great for Innovation, Says Lazowska

Much has been made of the fact that Microsoft is moving about half of its Live Labs applied research staff to other divisions, such as product groups and Microsoft Research. The news, announced within Microsoft a week ago, has been met with criticism from outside observers, who lament the reduction of one of the company’s most innovative groups (some would say its most innovative group). But there is another side to this story.

Live Labs was founded in January 2006 by Microsoft technical fellow Gary Flake, in a partnership between MSN and Microsoft Research. Its main goal was to accelerate innovation in Internet technologies like search, data mining, and distributed computing. Live Labs has been best known for developing visual interface technologies like Seadragon, a zooming application for all sorts of visual information, and Photosynth, which lets you create striking 3-D virtual environments from a series of photos.

According to the Live Labs blog, the current restructuring sends various team members to MSN, Windows Mobile, Microsoft Advertising, and Live Search. “Contrary to recent whispers and tweets, we are not shutting down, disbanding, dismantling, or anything of the sort,” the blog said. “In the coming weeks and months we’ll bring you updated developer tools, new ways to use Seadragon, and much more.”

Microsoft hasn’t said specifically what will happen to Photosynth and other favorite technologies from Live Labs. But the broader question on many people’s minds is whether the innovativeness of Live Labs will be crushed by plugging staff members into shorter-term product development instead of applied research.

Ed Lazowska, a University of Washington computer science professor and Microsoft watcher, has a very different take. “I think this re-org is great in terms of the company’s competitiveness and innovation potential,” he says in an e-mail. “The people from Live Labs who were doing research are now in Microsoft Research. The people from Live Labs who were doing development are now in development organizations. There’s a small Live Labs left, with some specific tasks. And we have a new and highly promising experiment in how to incorporate Ph.D.s into Microsoft product groups and build strong bridges to the research organization: put a guy like Harry Shum in charge.”

Shum is Microsoft’s vice president of search product development, and the former head of Microsoft Research Asia and the Internet Services Research Center. He heads up Microsoft’s Live Search product team—which is going head-to-head against Google and Yahoo in the search and online-advertising arena—and is absorbing about 20 staff members from Live Labs (about half have Ph.D.s).

“It’s important to note that there were no headcount reductions, and some of the people who left Live Labs moved to Microsoft Research, in addition to some moving to product groups,” Lazowska says. “The right way to view the change is as a re-org that clarified the roles of various organizations.”

“In my view, there’s a legitimate question about whether Live Labs was working as intended,” Lazowska continues. “Live Labs was largely an experiment in creating a structure that would facilitate hiring Ph.D.s into Microsoft product groups. Ph.D.s can contribute a huge amount to engineering organizations. For example, two Ph.D.s from Google’s engineering organization, Jeff Dean (Ph.D. from UW) and Sanjay Ghemawat (Ph.D. from MIT), were just elected to the National Academy of Engineering at incredibly young ages for their leadership in designing and building Google’s scalable infrastructure (e.g., MapReduce).”

“But Live Labs stopped being part of a product organization [about two] years ago, and started reporting directly to Ray Ozzie,” Lazowska says. “This ‘disconnect’ from the product organization effectively terminated the experiment. Live Labs also developed a considerable research flavor—but it wasn’t connected to Microsoft Research, which is arguably the world’s strongest computing research organization.” Shum’s position, he says, is effective in “creating a strong connection between the search business and Microsoft Research, and also making the search business an attractive place for Ph.D.s to work.”

In an internal e-mail sent to all Microsoft Live Search and Live Labs staff (several hundred people in total) last Monday, Shum thanked the Live Labs team “for their dedication and vision to research, technology and to search.” Shum continued, “In the past few years, we have had many opportunities to work closely with Live Labs colleagues on many challenging search problems, and in numerous brainstorming sessions. It is fantastic to now join forces and work even more closely with each other to create the world’s best search engine.”

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One response to “Microsoft Live Labs Reorganization, Questioned by Many, Is Great for Innovation, Says Lazowska”

  1. I can’t resist pointing out that Live Labs’ contribution to SeaDragon and Photosynth was more in the domain of *engineering* than *innovation*.

    Engineering is really hard, really important work. The last thing I would want to do is be mis-interpreted as saying something that diminishes the importance or difficulty of engineering. Engineering involves taking a collection of ideas and turning them into something that people can use — and use reliably, cost-effectively, scalably, conveniently.

    Innovation is more related to the ideas themselves. SeaDragon was a startup that was acquired by Microsoft. Its ideas — its prototype — may not have been ready for prime time, but the ideas were there. Photosynth is a combination of SeaDragon’s ideas with those embodied in PhotoTourism, a research project joint between University of Washington Computer Science & Engineering (graduate student Noah Snavely and professor Steve Seitz) and Microsoft Research (Rick Szeliski). PhotoTourism, too, wasn’t ready for prime time — there was a lot of work to do, and the insight to use the SeaDragon technology to make it a streaming/web app rather than a PC app was important. But the real innovation was embodied in PhotoTourism.

    Now, an important question is whether Microsoft, without Live Labs, would have moved in either of these two interesting directions. The answer may well be “no.” A drawback of Microsoft’s “product group” structure is that if something doesn’t fit directly within the domain of a specific product group, its value may not be recognized. That’s a problem, and it’s not something I’m capable of addressing. Also, there surely are a number of areas where Live Labs truly has innovated. My only point here is to suggest that the two examples of Live Labs innovation cited in the post aren’t really on target.