Tech Industry

Gates calls for more software research

Microsoft's chairman says computer science is where it's at. It's also where a new $1 million research fund's at.

Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates on Monday called on the academic community to recruit more students into the software field as the company introduced a $1 million fund for university research.

Speaking at a meeting between Microsoft Research and about 400 academics at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters, Gates said attracting the brightest minds in academia to work on software is vital to the growth of the computing industry and the economy.

"It's a concern to all of us that computer science in many countries, including the U.S., is not attracting as many people at the graduate student level as it did in the past," Gates said.

Yet, with the exception of some fields of biology, software stands to have the biggest impact on society as a whole, he said.

"The IQ ought to be coming almost entirely in our direction," Gates said. "This is the place where the kind of advances that will drive the economy will be coming from."

To help foster more academic research that dovetails with the work done by Microsoft Research, the company on Monday unveiled a $1 million endowment called the Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship Program. Five awards of $200,000 will be given out to new faculty members taking novel approaches to computer science, Microsoft said. The winners will be announced in the first quarter of next year.

Microsoft also announced the Phoenix Academic Program, a project to address software engineering problems involving generating and optimizing software code. Through the initiative, Microsoft will be offering a software development kit that includes the software compiler, code-named Phoenix, that will be used in future versions of Microsoft products.

Research agenda
Microsoft's overall investment in research grants is in the tens of millions of dollars, according to Richard Rashid, senior vice president in charge of Microsoft Research. The research division, which employs about 700 people in five centers around the world, has a budget of roughly $6 billion this year.

During Gates' speech to researchers, he singled out a number of areas in which Microsoft is devoting the company's research and development dollars. In a tour of universities he took this spring, he found that university researchers were tackling the same issues.

Gates said improving the security and reliability of software continues to be a focus of his company's engineers. He said the company is trying to improve the PC user experience by incorporating cameras and by making "natural interfaces," such as speech recognition and pen-based writing, more commonplace.

Microsoft is trying to make people who use the Microsoft Office desktop application more productive with better collaborative tools and the ability to gather data from radio frequency identification (RFID) systems. Through the extensive use of modeling, Microsoft thinks that it can make business applications become less expensive to run and maintain, Gates said.

He also said wireless mesh networks can help address the relatively high cost of high-speed networking. "We are on the verge of some pretty substantial advances," Gates said.

Probing for products
Rather than pursue pure research, Microsoft Research has established very close ties with the company's product groups. A number of research initiatives, such as Microsoft's work in speech recognition and electronic commerce, have been spun off as product lines or have contributed technology to existing products, Rashid said.

Microsoft's spending on research continued to go up even during the industry's 2000 to 2003 downturn, Rashid noted. He said a commitment to innovation is a matter of company survival.

"One of things that we constantly need to be doing is moving the state of the art forward and creating a treasure chest of technology that will see the company through in the future," Rashid told CNET on Monday.

At a meeting with financial analysts last week, Gates said Microsoft intends to substantially boost the number of patents for which it applies to about 3,000 this year. Last year, it filed for 2,000. IBM was awarded the highest number of patents last year in computer science, winning 3,415 patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Academic outreach has been an important component to Microsoft's research organization, Microsoft executives said Monday. The fifth annual Faculty Summit is giving researchers in academia a view into the work at Microsoft Research and the company's products.

In the past year, Microsoft has revamped its programs for working with universities. The company is shifting its focus from working with specific institutions to particular technologies, which should expand the number of universities with which Microsoft works, said Sailesh Chutani, director of the research unit's University Relations group.

IBM, another research powerhouse, is substantially upping its commitment to working with the academic community. IBM last month said it intends to start working with universities to develop computer science curriculae around standards-based technologies such as Java that IBM backs and open-source software such as Linux.