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Microsoft Research: 'An investment in survival'

Kicking off this year's Tech Fest, research chief Rick Rashid talks about how the unit is Microsoft's play to be a significant company for the long term.

Microsoft Research head Rick Rashid and Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie on Tuesday kick off TechFest, Microsoft's internal science fair. Ina Fried/CNET Networks

REDMOND, Wash.--Although some companies might see basic research as something to put on the chopping block in tough economic times, Microsoft's top strategy officer argued Tuesday that's the worst place to cut.

Craig Mundie, Microsoft chief research and strategy officer, said companies that slash research do so at their own peril.

"A great many companies have a fairly short lifespan," Mundie said, kicking off the company's annual TechFest internal science fair. Even many big, great companies only last 30 years or so, he said.

"The company would struggle I think to survive and certainly to prosper if we didn't have the research investment," Mundie said.

Microsoft Research head Rick Rashid put it more bluntly.

"It's really about an investment in survival," Rashid said.

He noted that in the early days of the software business, when Microsoft had only a few thousand workers, it made a decision to start up its basic research operation. Other companies in the business, he said, made a different choice.

"Most of those competitors aren't with us anymore," Rashid said.

Asked which of the technologies on display this week are likely to help Microsoft move beyond the recession, Mundie pointed to some of the types of new computer interfaces that will help the industry move beyond the mouse and keyboard.

Rashid, meanwhile, said it's hard to know which research bets will pay off.

"You invest in basic research precisely because you don't know what the future is going to hold," he said. "If you knew what you were going to get, it wouldn't be basic research."

Among the several dozen projects on display to the press Tuesday is an effort to build a better thesaurus that CNET Newscovered last week.

Microsoft employees will have a look and an even broader assortment of technologies on display starting Wednesday.

The goal of TechFest is to expose those in Microsoft's product groups to what is cooking in the labs.

See the rest of our coverage from TechFest 2009 here.