In the February 16 & 23 issue of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki devotes his The Financial Page column to the unproductive R&D departments in big pharma. My first thought was, “That sounds just like Microsoft Research.” Now, I don’t know about Microsoft Research in detail, but I’ve occasionally run across their work since 1998, when I saw a couple folks present at CHI on whether web sites perform better as broad and shallow, or narrow and deep.
As this list of projects suggests, Microsoft devotes tons of money to research and development. But to what end? I admit I can’t say much about many aspects of the computing world, but with respect to interaction design, all that I know that’s actually emerged from Microsoft research is the office assistant, AKA Clippy, and we know how well that’s done. There are numerous other projects that have produced academic papers and little else. Marc Smith has recently gotten a lot of attention for research he’s been conducting over the last 5 years on social software, though what people outside of the industry don’t seem to realize is that no one cares about methods of conversation on USENET.
I think about this as I sit in front of my 12″ PowerBook G4, which is riddled with interaction design innovation. Perhaps my favorite is LaunchBar, an app that lets me launch pretty much any program or file with just a few intuitable keystrokes. Or OmniGraffle, whose smart alignment and distance guides make positioning graphics a snap. Or SubEthaEdit, enabling easy-as-pie collaborative document editing.
And, on the web, we’ve seen things like Google (started by two guys from Stanford), blogging tools like Blogger (started by Pyra when it was three people), MovableType (Ben and Mena, so, two people), Slashdot (CmdrTaco and Hemos), Netomat (mostly Maciej),
Perhaps Steve Jobs was right to kill Apple’s vaunted Advanced Technology Group. It seems that product teams are responsible for their own innovation, and, what do you know, it’s working (Rendezvous, iTunes, Expose, etc. etc.)! Contrast this with Remail, from IBM’s research labs, which garnered some buzz when the site launched, but which I doubt we’ll ever see in any piece of shipping software. I mean, I love Babble as much as the next geek, but where is it getting us? And where is it getting IBM?