Microsoft's Mad Scientists

Well, they're not really mad, in neither the crazy nor the angry sense. There are some fairly fascinating projects underway within Microsoft Research, though. This week, many members of Microsoft's research team from around the globe have gathered in Redmond for its annual geek-fest of epic proportions, TechFest.

One of the most out-there presentations was the WorldWide Telescope (WWT). This is like a planetarium in a PC, so to speak -- your own personal Star Trek. With the WWT, you can zip around the cosmos, even visiting different galaxies.

(By the way: This telescope is an extension of a project originated by Jim Gray, the esteemed Microsoft researcher who was lost at sea just over a year ago. You can find out more about Gray and his projects here. His family, friends and colleagues, as well as the IEEE Computer Society, ACM and UC Berkeley are planning a full-day tribute to Gray in May -- more information on that can be found here.)

There were some other practical, more down-to-Earth applications displayed, as well. One group of researchers was working on a plug-in for IE that would let you save search results and share notes across different locations. Sounds like there might be a little Groove built into that one.

Another researcher, who was local to Redmond, showed off a system of sensors that he said would be useful for monitoring the heating and cooling systems for large datacenters.

If you were heading up Microsoft Research, what projects would you choose? What would you want your teams to accomplish? What do you think their priorities should be -- looking into the stars or more practical tools? Let me know at llow@redmondmag.com.

Test Live, Win Prizes
You, too, can win an Xbox, a Zune, or that most coveted of things from Microsoft: a huge bag of cash. Microsoft is driving interest in testing its Office Live Workspace with a huge sweepstakes for all registered beta testers in the U.S.

The grand prize is $100,000. The less-than-grand prizes include hundreds of Xbox 360s, BlackJack mobile phones, Zunes, travel vouchers, software, hardware and coffee gift cards. While earlier beta programs for Office Live were limited, anyone can sign up now. Only U.S. residents can participate in the sweepstakes, though.

Microsoft will be watching closely to see what testers think of some of the new features, such as the activity panel (a dashboard that gives you a view of active workspaces), offline document sharing, e-mail and RSS feed updates. As cool as Office Live sounds, it still doesn't have full integration and compatibility with desktop Office. That will likely be its key to the kingdom.

Microsoft is also targeting smaller customers -- 5,000 seats or less -- with some of its Web-based server products. Companies like some of the smaller divisions of Coca-Cola and Blockbuster have started testing online editions of Exchange and SharePoint Server. The amount of users using the Web-based version could account for a multibillion-dollar business within the next five years, according to Microsoft executives and industry analysts.

Are you using any Web-based tools? Any plans to do so? Which ones and why? Log on and let me know at llow@redmondmag.com.

About-Face
The online service wars aren't just about new tools and potential acquisitions. Facebook just scooped up a senior executive from Google.

Facebook's new chief operating officer is Sheryl Sandberg, who had served as Google's vice president of global online sales and operations for the past six years. Sandberg will leave Google on March 24 for her new post at Facebook. She faces the delicate charge of boosting Facebook's commercial appeal and financial success without alienating devotees of its fun and funky demeanor.

In published reports about her impending move, Sandberg said she couldn't resist the chance to help beef-up Facebook and thereby help shape and direct the social networking craze. This infusion of Sandberg's experience and enthusiasm comes at a good time for Facebook, as its audience has tripled to 66 million users in the last year alone. It's now the second-largest social network site, behind MySpace.com, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Do you use any of the social networking sites? Does your company let your users log on to these sites? I don't have a Facebook or a MySpace page, but I do have llow@redmondmag.com where you can let me know what you think.

New Yahoo Content Tool
More proof that operations don't simply grind to a halt when you're in Microsoft's cross hairs: Earlier this week, Yahoo announced a mobile content management tool to help mobile users keep their data squared away.

The new tool, called onePlace, uses Web browser-like bookmarks to organize and connect to online content. With this new tool, you'll be able to assemble links for related content, like stock prices, Super Bowl scores and ex-girlfriends. Yahoo plans to roll out the new onePlace service along with its mobile phone service on eConnect in the second quarter of this year.

How much do you use mobile devices? How do you manage content? There's a flood of information coming at us from all angles -- what's your strategy for keeping track of it all? Send me your thoughts at llow@redmondmag.com.

About the Author

Lafe Low is the editorial liaison for ECG Events.

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