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Microsoft Closes its Relationship with Scientists & Researchers

In a fairly surprising move, Microsoft announced the closure of its Silicon Valley research lab and the layoff of most of the scientists and researchers. Most of the computer science community, including the ACM and a long list of top scientists at Stanford, Princeton, MIT, CMU, and UC Berkeley have all expressed dismay in a letter to the company.  I am also disappointed to see the move from Microsoft…

In 1996, I was attending the IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition and found myself at a dinner with many of the top researchers in the field (and, of course, feeling out of place as a untested graduate student). P. Anandan, now the Director of Microsoft Research India, was a postdoc in my Research lab at UMass, Amherst. During the dinner, he made the somewhat surprising announcement that he was leaving academics to join Microsoft. This was a shock to most of the people at the table who, at the time, envisioned Microsoft was the birthplace of traditional office applications and a closed, poorly architected operating system. A debate ensued about the value of corporate research labs, their ability to stimulate innovation, and intellectual freedom outside the umbrella of academic tenure.

Of course, Anandan seemed to be somewhat prophetic, his move (and others like him) brought Microsoft decades of outstanding researchers who were given the ability to explore a range of fundamental problems ranging from multimedia and vision to distributed computing and networking. Microsoft transformed itself into a well-respected research institution that became a model for moving research from academic papers to product and the company benefited in both subjective and objective ways.

Academic leaders no longer discouraged their students from considering a career at Microsoft (after all, it’s an innovative place) and by seriously contributing to the discourse in a number of scientific fields, Microsoft was able to predict (and steer) the future in ways that other companies simply can’t. I’ve had colleagues join Microsoft, port docs, and students all work in the labs and have loved it. Objectively, it’s easy to trace product successes to the various research agendas in the research labels – Microsoft kinect (computer vision), the Microsoft cloud (security, distributed computing).

So why close the labs, it’s perhaps another example of a large institution that isn’t able to think clearly about its own drivers for success. The move will certainly cause some backlash and goodwill created by open innovation can be transformed to disappointment and even disdain fairly quickly. Particularly, in the way the closure was handled. By laying off scientists in the fall, with no real advanced notification, Microsoft has stranded a large number of academics in limbo.  Universities won’t hire once the semester has already begun and won’t even begin forming their search committees until late spring.

Microsoft Closes its Relationship with Scientists & Researchers
The disappointment in Microsoft’s Silicon Valley research lab closing is vocalized in an open letter from the ACM and academic community, and addressed to Harry Shum, the Executive Vice President for Technology and Research at Microsoft expresses “shock and disappointment at the sudden and harsh way in which members of the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Lab were dismissed.” And outlines the “negative impacts of the shutdown”.

A scientific community that had come to view the research at the lab as part of an ongoing partnership, now feels spurned. Does this mean sales of the new Windows 8 will be impacted, of course not. But in the longer-term battle to lead technology innovation, this will definitely not help. The abrupt closure of the lab and Microsoft’s treatment of the scientific community amounts to breaking up with your girlfriend with a text message. Other large tech companies should take advantage, there is a pretty girl in the room and a little attention wouldn’t be a bad thing.

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