Microsoft starts its own secret innovation lab

Why Microsoft wants its own startup-like innovation lab.

Google X, the tech giant's secretive lab that has developed ideas ranging from driverless cars , to Google Glass to Internet-for-all , is getting some competition from a major rival.

Using Google X as a model , Microsoft is starting a Special Projects Group in its Microsoft Research division (it could really use a better name) that will focus on "disruptive technologies that could benefit the company and society." That's according to Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet who was tipped off to the new innovation lab by this job listing and confirmed with sources that the group will be led by Norman Whitaker, a former deputy director at the innovation office of DARPA, the U.S. defense department's advanced research department.

According to another job posting, the new group will run like a startup. "We make big bets and fail fast," the listing says.

But why the focus on this innovation team? It's not like Microsoft isn't investing in research and development. Last fiscal year the company spent $10.4 billion on R&D.

One reason could be a strategic rebranding, by relatively new CEO  Satya Nadella, that paints the picture of Microsoft as a business that's focusing on big projects that could benefit society, rather than just Office and Windows. As Christopher Mims writes at Quartz: "Googlers love to talk about how Google is all about 'changing the world.' What do people think of as Microsoft’s purpose? Making it easier for America’s middle-managers to track payroll?"

For Microsoft the promise of developing a world-changing idea is an obvious reason to invest in this new lab, but it could be even more simple than that from a company standpoint. As the Washington Post points out, big companies touting big ideas, no matter how pie-in-the-sky -- think Amazon drone delivery -- are sure to get lots of positive press. 

That's good for public perception, but also, as Matt McFarland puts it: "when you aren’t hyping your next innovation, investors aren’t going to be convinced you will grow." 

Photo: Flickr/Robert Scoble

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