A warning: The first half of this post was liveblogging, which is an uneven and sometimes confusing style. If you find yourself getting bored, just skip ahead to the meat of it where I bolded a few words.
There’s been a lot of news reports over the last day on Live labs, and today they decided we should be briefed on it. Gary Flake, who presumably was hired away from Yahoo Research for exactly this purpose, starts talking about the “internet singularity”, then democratization and “Macro-ization” in computing, the idea that greater power and greater choice lowers the barrier to do new things. Now, desktop publishing is something that can be accessible to regular end users. Amatuers are becoming “pro-sumers”. “We will enable this year anyone to create their own customized search engine”.
Commerce is becoming a democracy, with diverse options. The community options out there allow people to connect easily on any level. Discusses the Long Tail, which needs to have a drinking game based on it (two shots for every Long Tail mention, one shot for Web 2.0). Lots of people are creating content because they can rely on the Long Tail, resulting in much larger ecosystems. The market filters things out, the community filters things out, with the sum of the parts creating a lens to help you find information.
Gary worked at Overture earlier, and he explains how Google came in the paid search field they invented later, but won because they made decisions that targetted the tail, while Overture targeted large companies.
“Web search is now the greatest applied CS R&D field”, and so many of the things we learn from the internet, the more they bleed into science, engineering and mathematic.
He explains Live Labs, a joint partnership between MSN and MS Research, creating over 100 new positions, a virtual organization. Designed to hit the sweet spot between science and engineering, users and business and such. There’s a sweet spot between pure engineering and pute science, and this is designed to leverage the relationships from both sides to hit the sweet spot in the middle.
The goal is, of course, to create great products and rapidly expose them to the outside world. “We’re gonna put out things that are somtimes less then beta”. They want to take a discrete way of doing products and move it into something faster. They’re creating a new class of hiring, invest in more research grants, create an applied science track within MSN while making more engineering resources available to MSR. The goal: improve MS’s innovation clock cycle.
They plan to ramp up the API limitations in this program.
Someone asks a queston about the danger of moving away from the newspaper model to blogs, and Scoble tore into the idea that blogs and choosing your own information are dangerous. The questioner called Robert an “edge case”, and he made an impassioned statement on how when he showed his friends IM, they called him an edge case; when he showed people the Mac, they said they didn’t need windows and a mouse. I was inspired, and Scoble got applause. Someone recorded it, and promises to send out an MP3, which I’ll post here later.
Okay, so, getting off the confusing liveblogging style, here’s the rub on Live Labs, as far as I could determine from the presentation and from talking to Dr. Flake afterwards. Basically, everyone, both people working at Microsoft and outsiders, agrees that MS gets outdone by three-person startups that can be more nimble, more reckless and more innovative.
Microsoft has great research people and great development people, and Live Labs is designed to bridge the two with a group that is free from the restrictions normally imposed on development teams. They will be able to work without worrying about how their product affects existing teams and existing revenue models, with the end results being the sole purpose of the team. They’ll be able to tap into the coding talent as well as the brainiacs in research, allowing for different types of brains to work on the same projects.
In a sense, its a startup within Microsoft.
Now, the idea, on paper, is a great one. If Microsoft can succeed with this team to develop fast, smart and risky products, everybody wins. The problem is, things rarely work out like you expect. I hope they can keep the hands-off approach, I hope they can think outside the box, and I hope they can pull it off. Good luck to them.
On a side note, before you start comparing this to Google Labs, understand this: Google Labs is a marketing tool, it is not an actual team within Google. Many of the Labs products are developed in regular Googlers 20% free time, while others are just risks the company wants to keep as low-key as possible, while others are just theory products.
Live Labs is going to be mostly composed of people working 100% of the time, and shipping often (how many months between Google Labs releases?). Live Labs will be taking people from both MSN and MS Research, as well as hiring a lot of new people, leveraging research grants, and working collaboratively with other insitutions. Google Labs is 50% marketing and 50% “what if?”. Live Labs is a workplace, designed to create product innovatively. While the message may overlap, only Live Labs will have the resources to actually make a difference.