Building 9 did not look happy. It was another drizzly October day on the rain-drenched Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington-and the mood outside only augmented the tempest within. Offices were being cleaned out, desks and file cabinets either missing or abandoned, boxes of equipment stacked in the halls. Many inhabitants of the sleek two-story structure had opted to work at home in the face of a triple horror: no computers, no e-mail, no Internet.
Moving day for Microsoft Research. The lab was deserting its headquarters in the center of the Soft’s big quad for Building 31, a roomier three-story facility on the northeast end of the action. Upheavals are common at the titan of software-but the ride Research has taken counts as wild even by Microsoft standards.
Since its 1991 inception, this foray into the future has gone full-out to woo the best and brightest computer wizards. The lab has grown rapidly, overrunning its headquarters and sprouting offshoots in San Francisco, Cambridge, England, and, as of last November, Beijing. While their names might not ring bells in Peoria, a swarm of digital legends now pad Building 31’s carpeted halls, among them laser printer inventor Gary Starkweather, personal computer pioneer Butler Lampson,
Multimedia oracle Linda Stone, and graphics gurus James Kajiya and Alvy Ray Smith. Microsoft’s digerati are busy shaping a future of startling 3-D images, machines that talk and respond to a person’s expressions, and lifelike Web-roaming agents. Among corporations, perhaps only IBM and Lucent Technologies boast larger computer science efforts, and the lab rivals programs at top universities such as Carnegie Mellon and MIT.
Seven-plus years into the lab’s existence, though, it’s getting to be put-up time. While researchers have placed code in a wide range of products, the lab has fallen short of its stated aim of providing true breakthroughs. And without real eye-opening advances to its credit, Microsoft Research has yet to answer the question on the minds of many computer industry watchers: Can a giant assailed for its lack of innovation-whose cornerstone products such as DOS, Windows and Internet Explorer spring largely from purchased technology-find a way to innovate from within?