technology always seems to have unexpected consequences.
Case in point: In 1969, the Defense Advanced Research
Project Agency (DARPA) installed the first four nodes of
what would become the Internet so that researchers could
better collaborate with each other. That effort
eventually led to the Worldwide Web -- which in turn let
loose online commerce and porn sites, e-mail and spam.
That's the yin and yang of technological advancement:
On one hand, the Worldwide Web and e-mail have combined
to create the "Global Village" that Marshall McLuhan
described in the early '70s. On the other, that village
keeps sending us pleas from the sons of deposed Nigerian
presidents. Today, most people who track these sorts of
things estimate spam accounts for more than 80 percent
of all e-mail traffic.
As it turns out, Microsoft has more than 700
researchers scattered among labs around the world who
think Big Thoughts about these and other technological
ramifications -- and how to deal with them before they
get completely out of control. At its Mountain
View, Calif., campus on Wednesday, Microsoft
demonstrated several projects now under way at its
Mountain View, San Francisco and Redmond, Wash., labs.
An overflow crowd of more than 300 -- comprising a
few suited-up venture capitalists and investment
bankers, and lots of technology wonks -- swarmed around
That spam problem, for example? The Silicon Valley
lab (aka Mountain View) discovered that some spam Web
pages can be identified through statistical analysis.
So, the nearly 700,000 hits to a site purporting to show
nubile teens is, obviously, porn. And the nearly 8
million hits to an odd little site in Italy? Well,
that's the Web page whose developers hijack nearly 80
percent of all Italian queries before sending them on to
the rightful target. The result: One heck of a winner in
the world's search-engine popularity contest.
Microsoft's scientists will soon publish a paper on
their findings, enabling any vendor to make use of their
In fact Michael Schroeder, assistant director of the
Silicon Valley lab, explained that all Microsoft
scientists same the face "publish or perish" imperative
as their academic counterparts. Which brings up an
important note about the technology being tested inside
the Microsoft crucible: Don't expect these lab-based
explorations to translate immediately -- if ever -- into
tangible products. The software giant's great wealth
gives it the luxury to fund studies more akin to basic
science than applied research.
"The moment you tie what you're working on to a
product, it limits how you think about the research,"
said Microsoft researcher Patrick Baudisch, in front of
his display of Visualization and Interaction for
Business and Entertainment (VIBE). "It's better for us
to look further into the future. We are the scouts of
technology, and sometimes the product teams pick up what
we've working on."
Baudisch is working on the problem of sorting files
across giant computer screens. Accent on that word
"giant," as in spanning a 20-foot wall. Once screens
become this large -- and there's every reason to expect
they will -- the question arises: How will we move files
to a folder that's 12 feet over and 3 feet above our
heads? Jumping does not seem the most attractive
Baudisch calls one approach "drag-and-pop." Think
Star Trek transporter meets computer science. That's
because the underlying system looks at the kind of file
being grabbed and the general direction the user moves
her hand -- then creates beam-like paths to the
likeliest folders. The user simply drags the folder to
the correct path, and the system pops the file into its
VIBE appeared to be a hit with attendees, who were
stacked 10 deep around the booth.
Other popular demos included shielding against
computer worms, preventing application conflicts,
managing thousands of photographs, shortest-route
calculations and mapping the United States, foot by
"The demos have been fascinating, since they're
looking at many of the same issues I am," said Jim
Meehan, a principal scientist with Adobe, of San Jose,
Calif. "The photo triage project has to do with managing
huge amounts of image data, which is something we have
to think about. And that one over there," he said
pointing to the booth labeled Race Detection in Managed
Code, "shows some clever ways of making sure
applications don't clobber each other when they run into
One project not on display is Boxwood, a new way of
thinking about virtualizing storage across hundreds of
components. "The innovation we figured out is a better
way to build a distributed B-tree that scales well,"
Schroeder told CRN. "We think we've provided a
kit to write file systems, Web search engines --
whatever can make use of the storage farms."
According to Schroeder, who said he's been working on
the concept for nearly 10 years, the lab will soon write
design papers on Boxwood. "We're trying to build a
convincing enough demo that it becomes obvious to make
these into products. The burden of proof is on me and
people like me to get it to the point where others can
really see the benefit."