Ina Fried

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Microsoft’s Science Fair Is So Cool. So Why Aren’t Its Products?

Attending Microsoft’s TechFest is always an opportunity to stretch the mind.


Redmond’s annual science fair is literally a sneak peek into the future. Going from booth to booth, one gets a sense of where computing is headed, from new ways of viewing data and interacting machines to better ways of fighting spam and viruses.

But as mind-bending and enlighting as the event always is, it also can leave one scratching one’s head.

How can the company be doing such pioneering work and yet not be better at being the first one to succeed in many of these same areas?

There are areas where Microsoft has been successfully first, of course. The Xbox team’s Kinect is a great example of that.

“That’s a whole new product that was created … based around Microsoft Research technology,” says Rick Rashid, who has led Microsoft Research since its inception in 1991.

In addition to whole products that have shifted from labs into consumers’ hands, many individual features also trace their roots to the labs.

And Microsoft clearly gets a lot of bang for its research buck. The company’s 22-year-old research arm employs just 1 percent of the company’s workforce but accounts for a quarter of the company’s patents. It’s also designed to be an “early warning” system for impending new technologies.

“We need to be constantly pushing the envelope,” Rashid said.

A Microsoft tool called GeoFlow presents Excel data visually -- in this case Seattle drug arrest data.

A Microsoft tool called GeoFlow presents Excel data visually — in this case, Chicago drug arrest data.

On Tuesday, Microsoft showed off GeoFlow — a new way to visualize data from Microsoft Excel. Researcher Curtis Wong, who created the Worldwide Telescope, used drug-arrest data to show how Seattle Chicago police are actually spending a lot of time busting people for small amounts of pot.

Tracking pot arrests is interesting, of course, but the idea is to use it for all kinds of large data sets. Retailers, for example, can break down sales data in much the same way.

Wong has been working on what is now GeoFlow since his earliest days creating the global online telescope. He told me years ago that the space project was itself built on a platform he one day hoped to share with others.

GeoFlow is just one of a few dozen projects that Microsoft is showing publicly ahead of the internal portion of the Science Fair later this week. There, the main work of TechFest will take place — showing the research work to product teams, in the hope that they will see how things that work in the labs can be added to future products.

But Redmond also needs to be not just commercializing its research efforts but using them to deliver the next generation of mainstream products that consumers will want. Apple, by contrast, doesn’t have a basic research lab. They do years-out work, of course, but not in the academic way that Rashid and his team do.

And yet it is their research efforts, when brought to market, that have been doing a better job of capturing consumer attention.

AllThingsD will be checking out some of the research projects in Redmond all day Tuesday — at least those being shown publicly — and we’ll report back on some of the most interesting.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus