MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Microsoft ( MSFT) has a not-very-secret weapon in its battle with Google ( GOOG) for Web dominance: a 700-person-strong network of labs dedicated to academic-quality research.Although Microsoft Research is only a part of the software giant's $6-billion-a-year R&D effort, the unit is churning out flashy projects designed to wow users and in the process help vault MSN into a far more competitive position. On Tuesday, Microsoft opened the doors a bit, putting on a kind of science fair at its campus here, demonstrating 13 of its more promising technologies for an audience of high school students, Silicon Valley residents and journalists. Although the projects on display were positioned as a more or less random sample of what the research group does, it was hard to miss the underlying message: We're going to make MSN cooler than Google or Yahoo! ( YHOO). To be sure, any help MSN can get would be welcome. In the March quarter, for example, the Web portal brought in a relatively paltry $561 million, down from $581 million in the same quarter of 2005. And it swung from a profit of $102 million to a loss of $26 million. Fair or not, Microsoft has never had the reputation of being a terribly innovative company. And it's difficult for a layperson to evaluate the worth of the company's research. But it certainly appears that Microsoft is mobilizing its considerable resources, and more importantly, its high collective IQ, to get back in the game. Consider the problem of navigating the Web with a PDA or cell phone. The connection may be fast, and the screen may be bright and colorful, but the keypad is awkward at best, and often nearly unusable. Voice navigation is one solution, but Microsoft is developing an elegant way to make text input on a handheld fast, easy and accurate. Say a user wants to browse for information on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "The Wild Thing," in reality a complex algorithm linked via the Web to the MSN database, lets him or her type something like this: C* rice (the * is a wild card), and come up with a list of suggestions in order of probability headed by Condoleezza Rice. Using the rankings of various queries, the list even includes common misspellings of her name, as well as guesses that are much further afield.
- "Shortstop" is a research project aimed at making alerts to mobile users "aware" of the recipient's status. It makes no sense, for example, to send a text message to someone driving on the freeway, but sending it while the driver is stopped at a traffic light is acceptable. To find out more about driving patterns, researchers gave 150 Microsoft staffers special GPS units that record their moves behind the wheel. To date, more than 37,000 traffic stops occurring over 19,000 mile of driving have been analyzed, says Microsoft researcher Muru Subamani.
- SenseWeb is a framework that will be used to add real-time data to online maps. Researcher Suman Nath says that nearly any sensor that can be linked to the Web. For instance, a traffic camera or a thermometer can easily feed data to a mapping site by using software developed by his team. Microsoft will open SenseWeb fairly soon and will allow the public to add their own sensors to the site.
- PinPoint enables people to use global positioning systems on mobile phones to find friends and family. Microsoft has built a server that tracks contacts and sends alerts to users when certain events occur. A parent, for example, might want to when a child arrives at school. The server maintains settings for alerts and security that users create from a desktop client. The phone can display maps, directions and alerts generated by the server, says researcher Rich Hughes.