Microsoft Center to Explore the Future of Software
Microsoft Corp., already the driving force in personal computer software, is setting up a basic research center to study what might be the software of the future.
Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft executive in charge of the center, said he wants a group of people who “are able to focus on those things that you really don’t know how to solve today, but you know that you would like to solve.”
While many software companies, including Microsoft, have advanced development groups studying potential products, Myhrvold believes that Microsoft is alone among personal computer software publishers in setting up a group dedicated to more basic research.
“We’re going to look at stuff that is two to five years out and focus a lot of effort on it,” he said in a recent interview.
Nearly all basic research on computer software has been done by computer hardware companies such as International Business Machines Corp., Digital Equipment Corp. and Xerox Corp., Myhrvold said. While those efforts have led to innovations in computer equipment, they’ve been less successful in software, he said.
Most university research has focused on mainframe computers and other high-end systems, not the desktop and laptop computers for which Microsoft develops software, he said.
Many details of the research center, including specific research projects, haven’t been worked out, said Myhrvold, Microsoft’s vice president of advanced technology and business development.
So far, at least seven people have been hired for the center, including three computer scientists from IBM, and Myhrvold is recruiting a research director. He hopes to have the center running this fall and eventually plans up to 100 employees.
The cost also hasn’t been determined, although Myhrvold said it will take a long-term commitment of “many millions.”
Myhrvold wants research that will “play directly to some of our strengths,” such as computer operating systems and applications such as word processing software and spreadsheets, and how people use them. But the way people use computers is rapidly changing, he said.
Computers continue to become smaller and more powerful, with access to more information. They increasingly are able to share data with fax machines, telephones, voice and video recorders and other digitally based machines. That changes their function from just being the machine on the desk or lap that helps keep records or write memos.
“What will the credit card-sized computers of the next decade be?” Myhrvold asked. “Are we going to type with these things? Are we going to talk at it, are we going to write at it? . . . What are the real technologies behind all of that?”
Microsoft’s chairman and co-founder, Bill Gates, is promoting a long-term goal called “information at your fingertips"--making computers as easy to use as possible and able to get at a vast variety of information, no matter where the information is located.
“We have a chance of fundamentally extending the way people work and think,” said Myhrvold, a 31-year-old physicist.