Monday, September 24, 2007

Microsoft in Cambridge: Will Real R&D Happen There?

Xconomy has two posts about Microsoft's hiring of Reed Sturtevant to run a new "development lab and innovation group" in Cambridge, where the software giant has leased about half of One Memorial Drive. (Xconomy also offers this professional biography of Sturtevant.)

I'm still yet to be convinced that any meaningful R&D or new product development will take place in this Cambridge facility. (Though it will be the headquarters for Microsoft's SoftGrid division -- the result of the company's acquisition of Boston-based Softricity.) Microsoft is an *incredibly* centralized company, and Redmond, WA is the center of everything.

Here's a snippet from a 2005 Globe column I wrote in the wake of Microsoft's acquisition of Groove Networks:

    ''Microsoft used to believe that development was a contact sport," says Francis deSouza, an entrepreneur who sold Flash Communications to Microsoft in 1998 but left in 2001 to start another company. ''You needed people bumping into each other. In Redmond, you wanted your entire development team in the same building. Ideally, they'd be on the same floor."

    DeSouza says that Microsoft is one of the last big technology companies to really commit to setting up product development centers outside of its headquarters.

    ''The next stage of their growth will require it," he says. ''And they'll have to work at it."

    The first big development center to coalesce outside of Redmond was Microsoft's campus in Silicon Valley, which now employs about 1,200 people and combines ''long view" technology research with shorter-term product development. Boston would be lucky to have a Microsoft site that approached Silicon Valley's significance.

    So what are the signs to watch for? First is how influential Ozzie becomes within the company.

    Second is whether we start seeing top Microsoft execs from Redmond visiting Boston more often. That includes Gates, Ballmer, Jeff Raikes, who runs the Information Worker business, and Steve Sinofsky, who runs the Office division.

    ''If you bump into any of those guys at Logan, that's a good sign," says deSouza.

    Third is whether Microsoft consolidates its three locations into a nascent Boston campus. The lease on Groove's headquarters in Beverly is up next year, and it would be smart if Microsoft brought its developers together with its sales, service, and support folks. Also, Beverly isn't exactly a spot that's attractive for a newly hired programming whiz out of MIT.

    Finally, it would be a good omen if Microsoft started recruiting some pure researchers to work at its local offices, and if the next start-up Microsoft acquires is allowed to stay put, rather than be shipped out to Redmond.

Two years later, a number of those things have started to happen. Now, I'll be looking for Microsoft to:

    1. Spread the word about some interesting/important projects being cultivated here in Cambridge.

    2. Open up its Cambridge building, as it does with its campus in Mountain View, to conferences and networking events, to really weave itself into the fabric of the tech community here.

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