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Microsoft has had a research division since the early 1990s. Google’s programming staff spends 20 percent of its time on R&D. Even Yahoo has a growing research division (see “Yahoo Ramps Up Research”). So why not eBay?

In fact, the online auction giant has a research outfit, although it’s little more than a year old. Known as eBay Research Labs, it began as a corps of programmers called the Advanced Technology Group.

For its tender age, the division has outsized ambitions. Its senior director, Eric Billingsley, a former nuclear engineer and veteran of search industry pioneer AltaVista, believes eBay will become a “common platform” for all kinds of online commerce, allowing people to build on and profit from customized tools that tap into eBay’s massive inventory and customer-service infrastructure.

By cultivating new ideas inside the company and also reaching out to third-party developers, Billingsley is trying to position eBay as the New York City of the Internet economy – the place every independent developer or startup CEO with e-commerce ambitions has to go to make it big.

Meanwhile, the lab’s researchers are analyzing eBay from within and without – improving the backend hardware and software that keep the existing online marketplace running, while coming up with new ways to make users feel more at home when selling and buying on the site.

Technology Review senior editor Wade Roush interviewed Billingsley at eBay’s headquarters in San Jose on August 2.

Technology Review: What was your first big project within the labs?

Eric Billingsley: The first one we really dug into, as the Advanced Technology Group, was the search engine for eBay. Back then, it would take nine hours to update eBay’s index. Searches were extremely slow, and it was becoming a very expensive part of the infrastructure. Now, when you place a bid it’s a matter of seconds before it shows up in the index. So right off the bat, we started having some impact. And that got us some clout and made it possible for us to start doing some other things within eBay.

TR: How many people do you have in the labs now, and what types?

EB: I’m a nuclear engineer by training. I’ve got two physicists, I’ve got an anthropologist, I’ve got a number of computer science people of course. Mathematicians, statisticians, computational linguistics, machine learning. Right now it’s a very small team.

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