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Only the Paranoid Survive

not surprisingly, microsoft’s research managers answer “Yes.” With the goal of uniquely blending the free-thinking of academia with the business mantra of shipping products, the brain trust in Redmond believe they’re on track to follow in the footsteps of General Electric, AT&T, IBM and other major corporations that used their dominance to build precedent-shattering research labs. That may well be. But the upstart venture has not yet earned the full respect of industry watchers and rival organizations. The word is that Microsoft’s expanding galaxy of computer science stars still has a lot to learn about innovation before taking center stage in shaping the future of personal computing.

Late last year, building 31 might have stood as a metaphor for Microsoft’s research enterprise: ambiguous and unfinished. The lab’s new home has the same cream-colored exterior with bluish-green trim as most Soft edifices. But its two parallel wings, joined by a boxlike center section that harbors an impressive atrium, give it a more high-tech corporate sheen than its lower-key counterparts. Inside, nearly all the offices look out on lush greenery.

The whole Microsoft research enterprise started with polymath Nathan Myhrvold, now the company’s chief technology officer. Four years after graduating from UCLA at 19, Myhrvold earned a doctorate in mathematical and theoretical physics from Princeton; he then won a fellowship under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University, where he studied quantum field theory in curved space-time. More recently, the 39-year-old Myhrvold has dabbled in mountain climbing and formula car racing. He even makes sporadic appearances as an assistant chef at Rovers, one of Seattle’s best French restaurants.

Myhrvold hooked up with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates in 1986, when Microsoft purchased Dynamical Systems, a Berkeley software company the mathematician had founded. Five years later, as head of advanced development, Myhrvold proposed creating a research laboratory to help Microsoft take charge of its future. His “vision statement” argued that the best way to ensure continuing access to strategic technologies was “to do it yourself.” That idea appealed to Gates’ paranoia. Even as his company grew dominant-ultimately provoking antitrust investigations that led to the company’s trial last fall in federal court-the software kingpin still worried about garage inventors killing his business with an unforeseen innovation. So in July 1991, Microsoft announced a new commitment to longer-term research.

The move hardly brought it into the ranks of the great industrial research organizations such as Bell Labs or IBM. Still, the creation of Microsoft Research marked a first for the software industry, which had always concentrated on developing its next product generation. By establishing the lab, Microsoft signaled its intent to be a player in such fields as speech recognition, futuristic user interfaces and 3-D graphics-cutting-edge technologies that might not bear fruit for years.

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