Microsoft's Lili Cheng on FUSE, Spindex, and more

Longtime Redmond researcher talks about her new role leading Microsoft's social software project and some of the first fruits of her effort.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--It's always fun to catch up with Microsoft's Lili Cheng. In addition to being a bundle of energy, she's always working on some interesting project.

In her years, she has worked in Microsoft's research labs and on the Windows team. Since last year, she has been heading a social software project known as Future Social Experiences, or FUSE Labs. The effort, under Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, looks at how to merge the social computing world with traditional software.

Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft's FUSE Labs project, after her talk at the Web 2.0 conference on Tuesday. Ina Fried/CNET

At Web 2.0 on Tuesday, Cheng showed off Spindex, the group's latest project. Like other social aggregators, Spindex focuses on bringing together various social network feeds. However, unlike other efforts, such as FriendFeed, the goal isn't as much having a real-time view, but instead to see what can happen by being able to index and search that collection.

Cheng said the goal was to take the approach that search engines use to make sense of broad sets of data.

"We've been thinking about could you apply that same technology to your personal information--all your personal information," Cheng said. "Right now we just have your Facebook and your Twitter feed. We do Evernote and RSS feeds and things like that, but obviously it would be interesting to think about the desktop and all kinds of data sources."

One of the projects that interests me the most is the Docs.com effort announced a couple weeks back. Docs pairs the browser-based Office Web Apps with Facebook to allow users to create and collaboratively edit documents with their Facebook circle.

For Cheng, one of the cool parts about Docs is the fact that it is a project that Ozzie is so passionate about.

Indeed, Docs came about in large part because of an e-mail exchange between Ozzie and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. In January, Ozzie and Cheng quickly pulled together a team to build a prototype.

"Ray said 'Let's make something,'" Cheng recalled. "We'll go down there and show them something working. We are not going to go down there and show them a bunch of PowerPoint."

The initial team was just five people--three developers, a designer and a project manager--and had just a month to pull the product together, she said. But, with the Office team already well along on Web-based versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, Cheng's team had a lot to quickly build-off. The goal, she said, was to build something really lightweight that would make it easy to create and share documents.

What made Facebook so appealing for the effort, Cheng said, is the fact that it already had a collection of people with whom to collaborate.

"I don't want to make new friends or create a new account," she said.

Cheng said she didn't necessarily know what kinds of documents people might want to create with their friends, but has been excited to see some of the possibilities. Co-workers have posted everything from old talks and presentations to things like the directions for making an old Halloween costume. "It just shows this other wacky side of people," she said.

For her part, Cheng posted an early version of her Web 2.0 slides to Docs.com on Monday. Some friends suggested that the slides were too marketing-heavy and taht led her to heavily rework her planned talk.

"It was great to get feedback," Cheng said, although having to go back to the drawing board the morning of her talk was a bit stressful, she added.

Both Docs.com and Spindex are still invite-only tech previews, but Cheng said they are built on Windows Azure to allow them to easily scale really big if either takes off.

"All of these projects...have the potential to be this big storage-crazy nightmare or for no one to use them," she said.