Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, told attendees at the Future Forum here Wednesday that companies should continue to invest in long-term research through the current economic downturn.
Microsoft's two-day Future Forum is an event to detail its research efforts.
Citing his own company's experience, Gates said: "Research has more than paid off for us."
Putting its money behind those words, Microsoft this year plans to invest $US5 billion in research and development, Gates said. "I never thought I'd get up and be proud of spending $5 billion," he added. But the problems Research is tackling cannot be solved overnight, or with a mere $1 billion. Instead, Gates continued, many of the research projects will take as long as 10 years.
Interactive TV is one of the first areas Microsoft concentrated on when it started the research labs in 1991. "That is an area where really nothing has caught on," Gates said, adding that a few uses, such as Internet gaming have been used, but the technology is far from reaching ubiquity.
Gates said that long-term research projects, even those that don't reach fruition easily, are important because research is where new scenarios will come from.
"We think corporations worldwide should invest more in research," Gates said. "The big advances come from long-term research."
He added that Microsoft's research group complements the overall product development, and a number of technologies in actual products came out of research. Furthermore, Microsoft has a "soft" boundary between the research labs and the product development groups.
In Windows XP, for instance, functionality including text-to-speech, kernel optimisation, Public Key cryptography, Ipv6, ClearType, and Windows Media Player code advancements, all came out of Microsoft's labs. Other examples Gates pointed to include SmartTags in Office XP, and data mining in SQL Server 2000.
Microsoft Research is not limited strictly to software. The unit is responsible for making sure that the software takes advantage of hardware advancements outside of Microsoft, and working with the academic community.
Gates touted software as the single best example of how corporations and universities can work together for research. He added that the biotech field is another great example.
On a more simplistic, but no less important approach, Microsoft research also looks at ways to improve the user experience, which at times includes removing parts of the software, or making them optional. Gates highlighted the controversial 'Clippy' paperclip office assistant as an example. "One of the most exciting things we did was turn [Clippy] off by default," he said. Now, however, users can turn Clippy on if they want it.
Gates also used the event to reiterate the vision for the next decade that he has evangelized in a number of speeches this year. He pointed to emerging business technologies around more effective communications, such as BI (business intelligence), reading on the PC-like device, TabletPC, and collaborative meetings. Another area, Web services, is driving toward a more distributed computing model, where users have more access to data via a variety of devices.
He added that Microsoft Research will play a role in moving these technologies forward.
"There are many problems that are tough research problems that need to be solved before getting this to a critical mass," he said. "All the different elements of software will be changed."