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Microsoft creates social computing sandbox

Software maker has set up a new lab under Ray Ozzie, to be headed by longtime Microsoft researcher Lili Cheng.

Update at 9:20 a.m. PDT: Comments from Lili Cheng added.

Ray Ozzie is getting more social.

No, the infrequent blogger and Microsoft's chief software architect has not decided to Twitter his every move. Rather, Ozzie has set up a new social computing lab at Microsoft, to be headed by Microsoft Research veteran Lili Cheng.

The Future Social Experiences (FUSE) group brings together three existing efforts: Cheng's creative systems group from Microsoft Research and two units that were already part of Ozzie's world--the Media Labs and Startup Labs group.

Ozzie sent an e-mail Thursday to Microsofties talking about the move and its importance.

Lili Cheng Microsoft

"The three groups being combined have concrete skills and code in areas where 'social' meets sharing; where 'social' meets real-time; where 'social' meets media; where 'social' meets search; where 'social' meets the cloud plus three screens and a world of devices," Ozzie wrote in the memo, which was seen by CNET News.

"FUSE Labs will bring more coherence and capability to those advanced development projects where they're already actively collaborating with product groups to help them succeed with 'leapfrog' efforts. Working closely with (Microsoft Research) and across our divisions, the lab will prioritize efforts where its capabilities can be applied to areas where the company's extant missions, structures, tempo or risk might otherwise cause us to miss a material threat or opportunity."

In the memo, Ozzie also noted the changing nature of social computing.

"For many years, technology-based 'social' innovations have been most commonly viewed through the lenses of communications and collaboration: messaging, chat, calls, meetings, conferences, co-editing, document sharing, collaboration, multiplayer gaming and the like," Ozzie said.

"More recently, many factors have begun to transform all that which is 'social': the ever-present, high-bandwidth internet both wired and wireless; the ease of connecting people; the dramatic rise in digital cameras, camera phones and 'app-capable' phones; net-connected game consoles & TVs; and so on."

Cheng, who will head the new lab, has specialized in social computing but has also worked in other areas, including helping Microsoft's Jim Allchin with the design of Windows Vista.

The new group will consist of around 80 people initially, Cheng said in an interview Thursday.

She noted that social computing is becoming central to all types of computing tasks, from gaming to search to business.

"When you think of what people do on their PCs, so much of it is (to) connect to other people and view information shared with them by their friends," Cheng said. "That's what people do on their computers."

The challenge, she said, is that personal computers weren't really designed with that in mind. Even networking, she notes, was an afterthought.

"It just feels early to me," Cheng said. "It feels like nothing works really well."

Businesses in particular, are still trying to figure out how to adapt social computing into their world, which also has rules and boundaries.

Although Microsoft has been doing a lot of research in social networking, the company is often not thought of as a leader in the area--something Cheng hopes will change.

"I'd love when people think of those tools to think of Microsoft," she said.

Cheng, who spoke to me just after meeting with her new team in Cambridge, Mass., said she is still trying to get a handle on all of the projects now in her purview.

"I didn't even have a chance to tweet myself," Cheng said.

Microsoft made other changes on Wednesday in its engineering ranks, shifting several projects under the auspices of Peter Loforte, general manager of Engineering Excellence and Technical Strategy & Community. Loforte will now head a team that includes the company's engineering "excellence," technical community, strategic technical recruiting, distributed development strategy, as well as the technical strategy team responsible for ThinkWeek--Microsoft's brainstorming process that used to be headed by Bill Gates, who would amass technical papers from across the company and review them twice a year.