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Microsoft's Innovation: 2004 and Beyond

Rick Rashid
Senior Vice President, Microsoft Research's worldwide operations
Thursday, April 15, 2004; 12:00 PM

Rick Rashid, a senior vice president at Microsoft, was online to take questions about innovation at Microsoft and the company's research and development efforts. The company's flagship Windows operating system powers more than 90 percent of the world's computers, yet Microsoft faces growing challenges from open-source software platforms and legal hurdles from competitors and the European Union. Meanwhile, the company is embracing new integration priorities as it embarks on a historic partnership with longtime rival Sun Microsystems.

Cynthia L. Webb, washingtonpost.com technology reporter, moderated the discussion.

Rick Rashid (Courtesy Microsoft)

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A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Cynthia L.Webb: Hello! We will be getting started with our discussion with Rick Rashid of Microsoft shortly. Thanks to all the readers who have sent in questions already. Keep your great queries coming.


Cynthia L.Webb: Good afternoon, Rick. Thanks for joining us today to talk about Microsoft's research and development efforts. Can you start by bringing readers up to speed who might not be familiar with Microsoft Research about the scope of work that Microsoft Research handles and how important your group's work is to Microsoft overall?

Rick Rashid: Microsoft Research is the basic research part of the company. You can think of us as a kind of "computer science department" within Microsoft. We have over 700 researchers doing basic research in more than 55 different areas covering everything from programming languages to signal processing to machine learning to computing theory. Our role is to create new technologies and then work with the rest of the company to get them rapidly into products.


Cynthia L.Webb: Microsoft also has an entire section of its Web site dedicated to Microsoft Research. Here's a link: http://www.research.microsoft.com/


Cynthia L.Webb: You have a strong, experienced background as a technologist, dating back to your days teaching computer science at Carnegie Mellon. I also read in your biography that you helped develop one of the earlier networked computer games, "Alto Trek" in the 1970s. It must be interesting to see gaming continue to develop and turn into a blockbuster industry. How much input do you provide for Microsoft's video game research and technology? Any interesting developments on the horizon that you can talk about?

Rick Rashid: I actually created a computer game for Microsoft called "Allegiance" which was released back in 2000. It was based on some of the same ideas as "Alto Trek" but done as a massive multiplayer space combat/strategy game. I've also worked closely with the DirectX graphic team and in fact managed it as one of my "side jobs" back in it's early days. I was also involved in the decision process to develop the XBOX.


Arlington, Va.: Rick - a background question. How long have you been at Microsoft? Have you always been involved in tech R&D efforts or did you used to live a different life, so to speak?

Rick Rashid: I've been at Microsoft for 12 and a half years now. Before that I was a professor at CMU in Pittsburgh for 12 years and developed the Mach operating system there. I came to MS to create Microsoft Research.


Cynthia L.Webb: What types of technology are you most excited about in terms of developments being made on the research front?

Rick Rashid: Well, I'm excited about a lot of things! I'm very excited, for example, about work that we are doing in the area of programming language analysis and proving properties of large programs. I'm also excited about our work in Machine Translation, Graphics (especially new ways to use graphics processors), machine learning, and many other things. We have a lot going on across a broad range of topics. The field of computer science is really blossoming.


San Jose, California: With mobile products loaded with functions already, how do you see Microsoft adding to those functions? What about battery life -- which is already the weakest link. Do you see alternatives to the current power available in these devices to support added features?


Rick Rashid: We are really creating what I think is an "ecology" of intelligent computing devices that can make everyday objects much smarter and able to perform their functions. A lot of the advances on the cell phone front involve tying those devices into the broader computing environment -- the Internet, your PC, backend databases, your other devices. Battery life is clearly an issue but a lot of strides are being made in lower power processing and display technologies which should help.


Cynthia L.Webb: You mentioned how Microsoft Research focuses on creating technology in-house. There is an event that Microsoft holds at its Redmond, Wash. campus to highlight tech developments at the company. Do real products come out of this? And does Bill Gates place a large importance on this event?

Rick Rashid: A lot of the products you see from Microsoft today come from our research group or have significant technologies from research. Our "technology fair" event is one of the ways we get Microsoft's product teams to get a sense of what is happening on the research side and often we do make connections there which result in new products or product features.


Grand Rapids, Michigan: What products/software has Microsoft brought to market in recent years that you would categorize as truly novel? There has been and continues to be a perception among many that Microsoft has a history of either buying up, using, and/or making their on versions of products that were created by others, rather than truly being innovative. (For example, the Windows look of a previously developed Apple Macintosh, the search engine pioneered by Netscape, spreadsheets, etc.)

Rick Rashid: There is a lot of innovation going on in our products. Things like our Windows Media Audio format, for example, which, when it was introduced, made big strides in compression and quality. The TabletPC has taken the older notion of "pen computing" and through new technologies for inking, recognition and annotation has help to create a new category. Our Smart Personal Objects technology (SPOT) represents a new way to think about bringing connected intelligence to everyday objects such as watches.


Followup from Arlington: So does Microsoft really give you "freedom to innovate?" Is it the ne plus ultra, so to speak, where they give you appropriate free rein to really let your mind consider the possibilities technologically? Or does the company tend to have a very set attitude from the top brass about where the company is going and there is no deviation from that?

Rick Rashid: We are really very much like a CS department in a University. We judge ourselves through peer reviewed publications and the mission of our researchers is first and foremost to push forward the state of the art in their areas of research. We don't have individual project budgets and no one reads the papers of researchers before they are published. Once we get great results, we work hard to get those ideas into products but we don't try to bias the front end of the research endeavor.


Washington, D.C.: How will Microsoft's recent development pact with long-time rival Sun affect your group's work and goals?

Rick Rashid: I don't see any impact on us. Our goal is to create new science and develop new technology.


Cynthia L.Webb: There is a lot of focus now on distributed computing and other technologies in computer science. There are also a lot of applications of computing power and data-mining programs that are being used to help with homeland security work. How much has Microsoft Research been involved in developing technologies that might have government, defense and/or intelligence applications?

Rick Rashid: We don't work directly with the government and we aren't funded in any way through government contracts. We do make our research results available in publications just as a University would and as our technologies are adopted into products they are made broadly available to government and industry. We do a publish a lot in the area of distributed computing and security and I was one of the co-authors of the web services security specification.


Arlington, VA: What is your stance on the Oracle/Peoplesoft merger, Microsoft's current Project Green project, and the status of their current 5 MBS products?

Rick Rashid: I'm not really on the product side and I don't really know the answer to your question. Sorry!


Cynthia L.Webb: Do you meet with and give guidance to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer? Microsoft is such an expansive, large corporation and it seems like one-on-one time with your executive colleagues could easily get limited. How often do you meet and give briefings on the latest projects your staff is undertaking?

Rick Rashid: Research plays a pretty central role at Microsoft. I report to Bill and I sit in with him on all of the product reviews he does. I also organize quarterly reviews with him of our new research and my organization helps to put together a lot of the material for Bill's "think weeks" where he reads a lot of research papers in CS.


Portland, Oregon: Is our interaction with computers going to change much in the next 10 years?

I ask this, because we're still using the mouse-cursor-icon paradigm pioneered by Xerox PARC in the 1970s. I do some voice dictation of letters using voice recognition software, but I'm largely still doing what I did on an Apple Mac nearly 20 years ago, meaning using a mouse to drive a cursor to menu choices.

Like Francis Fukuyama's thesis (The End of History and the Last Man) that mankind's government had evolved to a conclusion (liberal democracy), have user interfaces for computers also reached the end of innovation?

If not, where might they go?

Rick Rashid: I think there is a lot of innovation yet to come in this space. One of the technologies we've recently developed, for example, is a new kind of microphone that can eliminate background noise and only receive the sounds of your voice. This makes a huge difference in speech recognition but also could be a great advance for cell phones. We are also looking at new display technologies that feed data directly to the retina as well as really huge displays and the kinds of interfaces that work for them (think Minority Report).


Cynthia L.Webb: How do you insulate yourself and focus on R&D -- and keep your team motivated -- during times when there is a lot of negative, external attention on Microsoft's legal problems, such as the recent antitrust fine levied in Europe?

Rick Rashid: Actually, it isn't that hard. My team is focused on their research and the need to stay at the state of the art and get your work published in the top conferences and journals requires a lot of attention.


Cynthia L.Webb: We have 30 minutes left in our discussion with Rick. Readers, thanks for your input and questions!


Coronado, Calif.: Hi Rick - Nice to have you on the chat today. I was curious about Lindows.com's sudden decision to change its name to Linspire. I know that's mainly a legal issue, but did Lindows's work in open source efforts somehow hurt Microsoft from a technological perspective?

Rick Rashid: I believe the legal issue with Lindows that has been current is basically about trademark.


Arlington, Va.: Has Microsoft Research devoted a greater focus to security issues in recent times, in light of the increasing proliferation of security threats to Windows through such means as e-mail attachments and malicious ActiveX script?

Rick Rashid: We've had a lot of work going on in the security area for some time. Some of our work has been in automating the process of analyzing software and looking at how to prove properties of large (100s of thousands of line) programs. We have also done a lot of work on cryptography, digital rights management and system security -- some of which will be coming out in the next Windows XP service pack.


Cynthia L.Webb: Your mention of Bill Gates' "think weeks" is really interesting, particularly since a lot of companies might not have a technologist at the helm. You've described MSFT Research as having a great amount of autonomy. But will Bill Gates also roll up his sleeves and tinker with research ideas your team is working on while they are in process or does he leave this to you?

Rick Rashid: Bill doesn't try to get involved in the day-to-day research work. He does have good comments on papers and research that we do. He is incredibly well read and knows a lot of the work going on in broad areas of the field of CS. I think sometimes researchers are sometimes surprised that he knows about work going on in another lab or university that they themselves haven't heard of. Really, though, researchers set their own agendas and the best "management" (meaning me) can do is give them good advice and help make connections between projects.


Warner Robins, Georgia: What does Microsoft plan to do about the security breeches in its operating system? I know you send out automatic updates but why can't the programs be made to be hacker resistant?

Rick Rashid: We are trying to do a better job of securing the "perimeter" of our systems. Our Windows SP2 release will, for example, allow you to always run with a firewall in place to protect your system. We are also looking at ways to monitor traffic in and out of systems to detect intrusion and prevent it. There was a recent research paper from my group on that. As a field (meaning the field of CS) we don't unfortunately know how to build perfect systems which can't be attacked but we are looking at ways of preventing attacks from spreading if they are successful in breaching your system and minimizing the damage that they can do.


Williamsburg, VA: Will Longhorn be backwards-compatible with Windows XP? Will that hurt your ability to be as innovative as possible with it?

Rick Rashid: I'm not a product guy so I can't really speak for the Longhorn team. I know they are trying to make sure that applications for XP will run on Longhorn. At the same time, new Longhorn-based applications will require the new OS since they will require the innovations it will include.


Philadelphia, PA: Mr. Rashid: How long before we can talk to our computers issuing commands as they do in the Star Trek series? Do you have anything in the works where we can issue natural commands to our computers for tasks like reading e-mails, looking up my today's calendar? If you do, how can we subscribe to it as consumer alpha testers? Thanks.

Rick Rashid: You can control applications today with voice input and many people do -- in particular those who are in situations where they can't type or who are not physically able to type or use a mouse. I've been surprised by the statistics which indicate that a significant number of users today use the voice command and dictation interfaces in Windows and Office.

At the same time, I think it will be a number of years yet before things work as they do in Star Trek. In that show the computers didn't just hear what was being said but they interpreted it in an intelligent way. Even the doors seemed to open when you wanted them to but not when you didn't. It'll be a while yet before our ability to do machine learning allows us to build systems that smart.


Portland, Oregon: How do software patents affect what you do?

Does your group apply for and try to generate software patents? Are you "restricted" in any way by software patents already granted?

It seems to me that basic research in academia usually results in papers in technical journals that can form the basis for other people's work. However being a corporate creature, I wonder if your work is solely proprietary?

Rick Rashid: We really aren't different from professors in Universities. Our people write their papers and publish them without interference. We do patent many of our technologies but so, today, do professors in Universities. In fact, a number of Universities have very aggressive patenting processes and technology licensing organizations.

We also, frequently, make our work freely accessible. All of the code for the Skyserver effort (which has been driven by Jim Gray) is freely available. Likewise we have done a lot of work with Universities that you can go an download directly from our research website. We even released all the code recently for the game I worked on :-).


Cynthia L.Webb: Digital rights management is becoming more of a hot-button issue, particularly as more companies look to harness and make money off of putting content, music, videos, etc. online. Can you provide some more specifics on your research work in this area?

Rick Rashid: Our research has really been into the basic cryptography and system mechanisms that support the protection of information. If you want personal privacy for your own data or if you want to protect your own property (such as an author who wants to be able to sell his books) you need technology like that.


Tacoma, Wash.: As a technologically focused kind of guy, what do you think would be the best way for people who still have 56k dial-up connections to download those honkin'-big security patches without being forced to spend a grand to buy a whole new system? Thanks!;

Rick Rashid: We will be providing a CD when we do put out service pack 2 for XP so you should be able to get completely up to date then! :-)


San Diego, CA: What type of work has MR done on Longhorn and how much new research is behind this next OS?

Rick Rashid: We've done a bunch of things ranging from basic work on the user interface to graphics to databases to technologies for organizing and managing digital media (pictures, movies, sounds, etc.). Longhorn is being built using our latest software tools and program analysis tools as well.


Cynthia L.Webb: Speaking of Microsoft's R&D operations, how did you come to work for Microsoft? Was it hard to make the leap from university-level CS research to working for a company? You have worked on a lot of diverse research topics since coming to the company. What has been your favorite project so far?

Rick Rashid: One of my most recent projects was the development of SPOT (our smart personal object technology). It was fun both because it was technically challenging but also because it meant working with a lot of companies not normally in the computing space. I'm a big proponent of "ubiquitous computing" -- really getting computing power into everyday things and making them better at what they are (not turning them into little PCs or phones).


Hillsboro, Oregon: Do you think Moore's Law (computing power increasing) will continue? How do you think that excess computing power on people's machines will be used?

Rick Rashid: Everytime we think we will have excess cycles someone creates a new application to take them up! There will always be times when you aren't using your computer that you could "donate" cycles to others and there are some experiments that have been done which take advantage of this idea but historically it's been more advantageous to simply build dedicated systems to specific problems than rely on masses of user machines. I've heard the analogy made with cars. We have a lot of horsepower stuck in garages all day but it hasn't proven to make sense to find a way to harness them (at least not yet :-))


Portland, OR: how will mobile computing, GPS, and location based services change personal transportation? What will happen when heretofore disparate modes of transportation (taxis, buses, trains, boats, rental cars, car-share cars, etc.) are placed under one digital umbrella? What will happen when this "umbrella" begins to interact with mobile-computing and location based services widely available to hundreds of millions of consumers? Is this an area of research of interest to Microsoft?

Rick Rashid: One thing which I think is inevitable is that the confluence of GPS and wireless in cars will allow us to create perfect "maps" of the current state of activity on our roads. If only a small percentage of cars uploaded their travel location and speed we would be able to correlate that on a server and then provide the data back to everyone. With more intelligence in the car navigation systems we could then also optimize travel times and road usage. And that's just one application!


Cynthia L.Webb: Rick is staying online with us for a few extra minutes to take some more questions from readers.


Philadelphia, PA: Mr. Rashid: What kind of innovations are you working on to secure my privacy from prying eyes, e.g. when I send e-mails? Thank you.

Rick Rashid: We have developed digital rights management software for Microsoft Office which can be used to protect your email or other documents. Right now this is primarily intended to be used in corporate settings but ultimately this will be available broadly to anyone who wanted to make sure that only the people they intended would see their messages.


Cynthia L.Webb: Readers, we are out of time for today to take more questions. Rick, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today about your team's work and R&D at Microsoft overall. This has been a very informative discussion. You oversee a vast number of projects, people and efforts at Microsoft. To close, what is on your list as a top technology priority in the near future?

Rick Rashid: I'll cheat and say two things.

On the one hand, security and privacy are significant challenges right now that we are working hard to address and which people really care about. There is a lot of research work to do in this space -- even in just defining what something like "privacy" means in a rigorous way.

I'll add to that, though, another area. I think that increasingly we are in an era of "human scale" computing where we have enough storage to keep virtually everything that happens to us in our lives. A terabyte of disk could hold every conversation you will ever have. It can hold every picture a normal person would be likely to take. We have a chance to be able to think of computers as augmenting our memories and abilities and giving us back our past as well as helping us attack the future. I'm really excited about the prospects for the field.


Cynthia L.Webb: A thanks to Rick of Microsoft and wp.com readers for participating in today's discussion. Have a great day!


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