How the 'One Microsoft' mission is changing Microsoft Research

How the 'One Microsoft' mission is changing Microsoft Research

Summary: Some of the sweeping cultural changes affecting Microsoft are having an impact on the company's research arm, as well, says MSR chief Peter Lee.


Cultural changes at Microsoft over the past year-plus are reverberating throughout the company, including across the company's 1,100-plus-strong Microsoft Research arm.


Since last July's "One Microsoft" reorganization," things have gotten friendlier" between different teams at the company, including Microsoft Research (MSR) said Corporate Vice President and MSR chief Peter Lee. "There's more of a communal feel."

I had a chance to chat with Lee during an open house at Microsoft Research New York's new digs on May 5. The open house was held in honor of the two-year anniversary of the New York lab, which Microsoft created around a core of former Yahoo researchers that the company hired.

The MSR New York office is now home to about 20 researchers. MSR New York has a particular focus on social media and social science research, along with machine learning and big data.

In the not-so-distant past, some product teams at Microsoft had to be coaxed to consider incorporating MSR-developed technologies and techniques in their commercial products. TechFest, Microsoft's annual internal research fair, had become a place for researchers to try to pitch product teams to pick up their technologies.

Things are different now, said Lee, who became the head of MSR worldwide last July. Many product groups inside the company are clamoring to adopt technologies pioneered inside MSR. The Windows Phone team and Xbox teams, in particular, have been at the forefront of taking MSR technologies in building them into commercialized entities, such as the Cortana digital assistant in Windows Phone 8.1 and the Kinect sensor. MSR also has contributed to more enterprise-focused products, including the PowerBI business-intelligence and Oslo Office 365 social-feed app from the Office team.

When I asked whether Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's "mobile first/cloud first" mantra was influencing the types of research projects MSR is undertaking, Lee was quick to note that "MSR management doesn't tell (researchers) what to do."

That said, "We all want to be part of a winning team," Lee acknowledged. And the company's product teams, with their mobile first/cloud first marching orders, "are welcoming research with open arms," these days, he added.


More "open arms" seemingly has translated into more Microsoft research projects becoming commercialized and/or part of commercialized products. But Lee said he doesn't want to err on the side of MSR becoming nothing but an extension of the company's product groups.

"We still need to be wackier and more forward-looking.... We are not just about product development. We are looking beyond the headlights," he said.

An example of MSR embracing a longer-term view is Microsoft's recent hire of Norman Whitaker, who most recently was the Deputy Director of the Information Innovation Office at DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense's research arm. Whitaker previously was the Program Manager for the DARPA Urban Challenge program, which encompasses self-driving vehicles, as well as other kind of automated bots. (Lee himself formerly worked at DARPA before joining Microsoft.) At Microsoft, he will be heading up a new "Special Projects" team in MSR focusing on so-far unnamed disruptive technologies. MSR Special Projects is Microsoft's version of Google X, sources of mine have said.

Lee is also personally committed to being more open and forthcoming about MSR's work, he said. That's another shift from the philosophy of some former members of MSR management.

In the new One Microsoft, "we now have to work with everyone. If there are secrets (between product teams) at Microsoft, it makes things harder for us," Lee said.

He also noted that 85 percent of MSR's work is done in conjunction with academic researchers who are intent on seeing their research published. That requires a level of openness and transparency. (MSR doesn't have to reveal all its secrets to us blogging sleuths and/or competitors. For example, MSR may opt to publish information about a newly developed algorithm without disclosing how, when and where it will be used by a Microsoft product group.)

One more cultural change impacting MSR that I found interesting is on the cross-platform front. In recent months, Microsoft has been releasing more and more software and services aimed to work not just with Windows, but also iOS, Android and Linux. Lee acknowledged that the cross-platform emphasis is also happening in MSR, too. 

"We're looking at more cross-platform, and embracing competing OSes," he said. "There's more of an interest in exposing our services on other operating systems" these days. The MSR "Drawbridge" library OS work is just one example of investigations in this vein.

The faster delivery cadence adopted by the Windows, Office 365 and other Microsoft teams is something in which MSR is involved, too. The idea of "test flighting" multiple features and updating services even more frequently than once daily are areas the implications of which are on the radar screen of research, too, Lee said.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Cloud, Microsoft


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Skype

    Not sure who gets the blame but I suspect MSR is at the heart of it. They, MS have reduced skype to an unreliable and possible unsecure from its previous. when independent of MS, reliable and totally trustworthy app. Bugs me; wish they would learn how to take over a company without destroying it in the process.

    • the new regime

      It will be interesting to see how many old-guard necks at M$ get snapped by any sudden lurch in the direction of promised openness and cooperation, especially if that implies FUD and litigation are being abandoned as core corporate strategies for "success".
      • Most of that "old guard" leadership is already gone.

        I think there is finally a "moratorium" on litigation over IP among the "big boys" (Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google) right now. I think they have figured out that, with the current state of the USPTO, it is less expensive to cross-license everything than to fight it out in court.
        M Wagner
    • Errrr

      Use Skype daily. No problems with it. Try re-installing your OS. :-) [Something Adobe suggested if Flash Player didn't install or work correctly.]
      • Skype

        I agree, I have not seen any problems while using Skype.
    • skype trustworthiness comments are based on what???

      My (large) employer prohibited installation and use of Skype way back when it was an independent entity for security reasons. What is your basis for claiming it was totally trustworthy when it was independent?
  • your kidding right.

    Skype has never been greatly embraced as a communication media. It's not getting any better, just not getting any worse.
    • skype

      oviously not a skype user or u would be more aware.
      • Skype is like most things IT.

        Few people, even the ones you would hope would be in a position to have a powerful understanding about who is using what tech, have a fulsome understanding of who is really using what tech.

        I have seen this phenomenon so many times now I have lost count. Every time I see it rear its head now, I feel like saying here we go again. The fact is, there is all sorts and kinds of tech out there that's heavily used by some and barely understood or heard of by others.

        And what makes the situation all the more misleading is the outlook pertaining to using or not using the tech in question the two different camps take.

        Typically, the camp that uses the tech have several things in common with others in similar situations where your looking at a particular kinds tech that some use a lot and others hardly even think about. Firstly, its often the case that if you are using a particular kind of tech a great deal, and many others do not, you are also using that tech in circles where many others are also involved in using that same tech as you do. It creates a weird situation where you feel that far more people are not only very aware of the kind of tech in question, you tend to feel that all kinds of people are using it, even though that's not exactly the case. Secondly, if you do use a particular kind of tech quite a bit, you not only come to be familiar with it, you may even come to rely on it and may find you often set yourself up to practically need it in some cases and would find you would sorely miss it if it was gone. This creates a whole series of similar feelings in the user of the tech in question that cause the user to give significant importance to the tech and to certainly elevate their over all impression of the tech.

        In such a case where there are also large numbers of people who not only do not use the very same tech, and may actually know little about it, sometimes only its name and roughly what its supposed to do, end up in an almost polar opposite position of those who do use the tech on some regular basis. The non users probably either do not know or associate with anyone who uses the tech, or have no idea they know someone who uses the tech. They have managed to live their life without out using the tech and therefore could not experience any lacking in their life and certainly have no feelings of missing it. Because they do not use it and don't know of anyone who uses it, they have little interest in it and may very well have little to no actual use for the particular tech in question. Often times whatever the particular tech accomplishes, the non users may have some other way of accomplishing somewhat the same thing. They may even have decent reasons for liking their way better. If using the particular tech has some "geeky" aspect to it, such as needing a computer to use it, or requiring at least some tach savvy ability, they may even in fact have a somewhat, or even very negative opinion about using the tech as opposed to their more "simple" way of doing things.

        So, the end result can often create two fairly distinct way of looking at the situation. On the one side you have the tech users who tend to think all sorts of people use the tech and its easy to use, and in some cases practically indispensable. Understandably, people in this camp often think the non users are some peculiar and backward minority of obtuse nay-sayers who need to get with it. On the other side you have the non users who don't really know any users and when they do hear about, or meet a user of the tech they think hes a representative of a minority of people who are geeky tech heads who would gladly put themselves to a lot of trouble to do something in some flashy geeky and frankly unnecessary way because they know as a fact they and everyone they know don't need or use the tech.

        Now those are fairly polar opposites and of course in the real world its certainly a bit more of a continuum of opinions and experience, but you can get the picture of how vastly skewed opinions about technology develops. Most people who sit pretty deeply in one camp or the other can easily find themselves developing intractable ideas and positions on issues about the tech in question and find the ideas and opinions about the tech from the other camp ill informed and inaccurate when in fact both sides don't realize there are elements of wrong and right in both their arguments that end up crafting the reality that exists.

        For some odd reason, far too many that find themselves in one camp or the other have formed an almost obstinate outlook towards showing any interest in looking at a situation realistically and simply prefer to the extreme their opinion about the tech in question.

        Skype is actually one of those kinds of tech. I am lucky in that I have the unusual situation where I can travel and mingle on a very regular basis between groups that are at least fairly or even very tech savvy to groups that are very "Joe Average" were their tech savvy abilities and interests are almost always limited in quite a number of ways. Sometime very significantly.

        I know in the more tech savvy circles I travel in, not only is Skype well known but its used by several people on some regular basis. They are relatively gung-ho about it too. In the Joe Average circles I travel in they seem to know what Skype is, but I never hear anyone ever even talk about it unless its the rare occasion when one of them is talking about someone else they know using Skype for something. And that's only a very seldom thing. Its not used in this circle of people and as I have said, with little chatter about it, its use is not likely to increase much soon. These kinds of people might be convinced to use Skype in certain occasions, but the key word is "convinced". True Joe Average types, of which their are far more vast number than many people realize, often don't have much interest in certain kinds of tech. I know some guys who if you show them the newest most modern "fish finder" THEY ARE THERE AND WANT THAT. Show them something called an iWatch and they would be far more likely to point out its just one more thing for them to break when they are doing an oil change.

        There are some very powerful and different circles we travel in. And far too often too many people fail to recognize, or even seem interested in recognizing that such circles exist, and to what degree that they do. The differences of opinion in those circles can be miles apart, such as one saying "Plenty of people use Skype and its an indispensable tool", and the other side saying "Skype is for geeks, I don't know anyone who uses it and its more trouble than its worth if you already own a phone".

        Coming to realize the impact this plays in the IT industry and society is often very very important. And it seems too often far to few do understand the impact.
  • It's refreshing....

    To see MS opening up to new ideas moving forward based on R&D , markets, and customers vs. the Ballmer era of "I am the MS Steve Jobs" and terrible products......

    I hope MS and MSR make a new game of it all, it will be good for all of us. The new CEO is definitely looking like a winner....
    • Except that, those ideas and products and methods, had all, or most,

      been done under the direction of Ballmer.

      Nobody can make so many "changes" so quickly, especially in a company the size of Microsoft. So, those perceived changes are mostly, a continuation of what was set in place before Ballmer left. Perhaps in another year or two, the "new" changes will become obvious, and nobody knows whether they'll be good for MS until they're implemented and accepted by the consumers and businesses.
      • Large companies do indeed start to atrophy - mainly because ...

        ... they get so large that leadership gets fragmented. This is especially true when the company founder(s) leave the company. After Jobs death, the Apple Board started making decisions Jobs would never have made. No one questioned Jobs because, well, he was Steve Jobs! The guy that built the company, was forced out of the company, and ended up saving the company from its own leadership. After that, there might have been grumbling but NOBODY challenged Jobs' vision. Jobs body wasn't cold before the Apple Board started pressuring Tim Cook.

        Nadella is out to prove the conventional wisdom WRONG! And, this new "One Microsoft" strategy is intended to do just that.

        And it is likely to be successful - at least as long as Gates and Ballmer are on the Board.

        At Apple, Cook is just an employee. So is Nadella, but collectively Gates and Ballmer own enough stock to continue to direct Microsoft. As long as they have trust in Nadella, his future is safe.

        When the time comes that Gates and Ballmer are no longer on the MS Board, Microsoft will start to atrophy, as has every other tech company.
        M Wagner
        • What rock have you been hiding under?

          MS stock has been range bound for 10+ years. The atrophy set in a loooooooong time ago. You speak as if Ballmer was some inspirational visionary. Does he pay part of ur salary?
          • Stock price is not always indicative of a company's performance,

            and Microsoft has been proving that forever.

            Microsoft is outperforming Google, which has a much higher market cap, and is doing quite well in comparison to Apple, which has a market cap some 150 billion higher.

            MS's earnings have consistently been a lot better than Google's, and it's also outperform Apple in the last 30+ years; it's only recently that Apple, with its iStuff, has been doing good, but, that's slowly changing, and Apple will come back down to earth in sales and earnings and most importantly, their market cap will tank.

            Meanwhile, Microsoft has built itself a portfolio of products and services and software and hardware, which makes it almost bullet-proof against any major downturn in the economy.

            So, what rock have YOU been living under?
  • How the 'One Microsoft' mission is changing Microsoft Research

    Good for Microsoft. Their R&D division has always had great ideas. This communal thing should have been done earlier.
  • MS becomes IBM?

    It's been said before, but it seems that MS wants to be the new IBM. That's a great and worthy ambition, but in practice it's also a very difficult balancing act: can MS really make enough money from servers and Office to pay for research that's both fundamental and profitable?

    IBM managed this act for several decades, because they owned mainframe computing. I wonder whether Microsoft will be able to do something similar, when there's so much competition from the GNU/Linux world. I hope so: I admire IBM and I could admire MS if they started working in a similar way.
    • Don't be fooled. IBM is still at the top in their own segment.

      IBM stayed with PCs until they became a commodity - then they returned to their roots. (Highly scalable premium services.) But they did not abandon their future. IBM adapted to UNIX, then Linux. They are among the best in artificial intelligence. They are entirely self-sustaining.

      Microsoft, on the other hand, had the good fortune to ride on IBM coattails without being swallowed up. Gates protected Microsoft's best interests from the start.

      In the end, Microsoft is already the IBM of their market segment. Their approach has been quite different but equally successful.

      Neither company is threatened by GNU/Linux. IBM for obvious reasons - Linux runs on IBM supercomputers just as often as UNIX does - perhaps more often!

      Linux vendors are not really interested in the commodity desktop. There is very little money to be made in a marketplace dominated by Microsoft. Linux competes strongly in the machine room - but mostly in the highly scalable research computing and transaction-processing markets. The rest goes to Microsoft and the high-end infrastructure vendors like Cisco, Juniper, and Aruba.
      M Wagner
      • serious ibm question

        What is their future business model? Their Services organization is taking a huge perception hit and companies are bring sevices back in house or to Wipro (offshore). The sold X series. P series iss under constant attack from Linux and Microsoft. They don't play in mobile. They don't have a relevant database any more. What is their business model now?
  • How the 'One Microsoft' mission is changing Microsoft Research

    "IBM managed this act for several decades, because they owned mainframe computing."
    IBM did not spend any money on research that is fundamental and profitable using their own money. All their research are done at the behest and funding by the US government (your tax dollars), even their supercomputing initiatives were, are and will be financed by the US government. All products of their so-called research ended up in federal agencies that shouldered all the expenses and then some ...
  • great but

    still doesn't feel like ONE MSFT when your #1 selling product's modern touch based version, office, is on the ipad first.